While California agriculture just might have the nation's most stringent food production standards already in place, the industry recently ratcheted its food quality controls up a notch with the April 1 implementation of the voluntary leafy greens marketing agreement.

While the agreement is monumental and sets stricter guidelines (good agricultural practices) for leafy greens production, its longevity by name could be short-lived as agricultural groups set even further goals of mandatory marketing orders at the state and federal levels. Even if marketing orders are enacted, the existing marketing agreement rules could remain in future orders.

The new marketing agreement was forged to ward off another shelf-clearing food nightmare, like the spinach E. coli (O157:H7) outbreak late last summer that killed several people, sickened hundreds more, and obliterated spinach sales, costing the California industry an estimated $800 million.

Production of iceberg, green leaf, romaine, red leaf, butter leaf, and baby leaf (lettuces), plus spinach, escarole, kale, endive, chard, spring mix, cabbage, and arugula are included in the marketing agreement.

“This week marks the beginning of the fulfillment of a promise we made to the nation in the wake of the food safety crisis that started with the E. coli outbreak in spinach in September last year,” says Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers.

“We promised to declare war on foodborne illness at that time … Our farmers and other professionals who grow and ship fresh produce have worked diligently to respond to this crisis, with substantial and effective means to combat E. coli and other threats to our food supply.”

The leafy greens agreement was the brainchild of Western Growers, whose board of directors unanimously approved the concept last Oct. 30. Members of the trade association grow, pack, and ship 90 percent of the fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables produced in California and Arizona.

Other groups quickly added support, including the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, the Grower Shipper Association of Central California, the California Farm Bureau, and others.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) certified the agreement on Feb. 7.

Guideline development

Industry experts from the University of California, Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, California Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others submitted marketing agreement ideas for over three months.

“This agreement will make an excellent system even better,” says CDFA Public Affairs Director Steve Lyle. “We think it's a strong beginning, and the agreement is potentially a solution to the concerns that developed last fall. It has the potential to give folks more confidence.”

Agreement specifics

The voluntary marketing agreement requires handlers of leafy green commodities to accept product only from farmers who follow specific food safety procedures. The testing and mitigation of water, tool sanitation, worker hygiene, and product washing are just a few areas.

Signatories (handlers) to the marketing agreement agree to purchase 100 percent of leafy greens from growers who follow a 50-page list of production guidelines or metrics. While program enrollment was voluntary, participation is mandatory for the signatories.

Fresh Express was the last major handler in the state to sign the marketing agreement.

“The addition of Fresh Express to the list of handlers guarantees that 100 percent of the volume of spinach, lettuce, and other leafy green commodities in California will be covered by the new enhanced food safety procedures,” Western Growers said.

“We believe this agreement can serve as a model for the nation in our quest to enhance the food safety standards in this country,” Nassif says. “The events of last September were a watershed event for our industry. We have learned from the past and are making every effort to enhance food safety in our industry.”

In a Jan. 25 letter to CDFA Secretary A.G. Kawamura, United Fresh president and CEO Thomas Stenzel said, “While we know growers, shippers, processors, and handlers have always put food safety at the top of their priorities, we believe the enhanced standards under the proposed marketing agreement are a significant step forward not only for California but nationally.”

Dole Fresh Vegetables, Inc., a subsidiary of Dole Food Company, Inc., that signed the marketing agreement, said good agricultural practices were already in place in all its California growing operations. The company will apply the California standards in all states where it grows leafy greens.

The agricultural industry's united effort to quickly craft a self-developed plan was two-fold: to quickly put in place a plan to help further restore consumer confidence, and to beat regulatory and legislative officials armed with potentially more stringent regulations.

CDFA enforcement/inspection

Enforcement and inspection of product per the agreement is the CDFA's responsibility.

According to the CDFA, handlers who are signatories to the agreement are charged two cents per carton to operate the agreement, starting April 1; this will generate an estimated first-year operating budget of about $4.6 million.

While most funds will pay for CDFA inspections and verifications, experts told the marketing agreement's board of directors' technical subcommittee that costs could range from $2 million to $5 million.

“We will have a role on the inspection/verification side, as this will be a government-verified inspection program to make sure that people are adhering to the guidelines,” Lyle said. “CDFA employees will conduct the inspections.”

Twenty CDFA trained employees will conduct the inspections, with another 10 U.S. Department of Agriculture employees on standby if needed.

An official CDFA certification mark will be an industry seal, certifying that the leafy green products were grown, packed, shipped, processed, and/or handled following the best agricultural practices. Lyle said several days before the April 1 launch that the CDFA seal was not yet available.

The next chapters

From the beginning, the 20/20 vision of some agriculture industry leaders was that marketing agreement was a first step to achieve immediate food quality improvement standards. But the long-range vision has focused on the development of a mandatory state marketing order, to be followed even later by a federal marketing order.

“We're aggressively pursuing state and federal orders,” says Western Growers Vice President of Communications Tim Chelling. “The state order could be initiated in a short time, perhaps a matter of months. Federal action is much more complex, on a much larger scale, and takes much longer. We are exploring how best to do that.”

Dole Fresh Vegetables President Eric Schwartz said, “Dole is in full support of a uniform, national, leafy greens food safety standard that will set mandatory and explicit guidelines in the produce industry.”