Seasonal food safety costs for California leafy greens growers more than doubled in the year after the September 2006 outbreak of E. coli in spinach, according to a survey by the University of California Small Farm Program. On a per-acre basis, these costs were lowest for the largest farms.

The UC Small Farm Program survey is the first to ask leafy greens growers specifically about food safety costs after the implementation of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA).

The LGMA was created in 2007 as a response to the 2006 E. coli 0157:H7 spinach outbreak. The marketing agreement is a voluntary program for California handlers of lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens. Farmers who want to sell their leafy greens to LGMA handlers must also comply with LGMA food-safety provisions. An estimated 99 percent of leafy greens sold in California are covered under the LGMA requirements.

Many small-scale leafy greens growers who only sell directly to consumers, chefs and independent grocers are not subject to the LGMA.

In the survey, growers reported their seasonal food safety costs increased 127 percent, from an average of $24.04 per acre to $54.63 per acre. Because it appears that growers may have ignored some costs when responding to the survey - e.g., some labor costs and owner's time - the combined real costs of seasonal and one-time food safety improvements could exceed $100 per acre.

The survey also found that costs per acre were consistently lowest for the largest-sized growers with revenues over $10 million, who were also more likely to hire food safety specialists to manage their farms' compliance.

“In California, we see that smaller farms are at a cost disadvantage under LGMA to the largest leafy greens growers - specifically those that have annual revenues over $10 million,” said Shermain Hardesty, director of the UC Small Farm Program and co-author of the study.

To view the full study, visit http://ucanr.org/sfp/leafy-greens.