Movers and shakers in the Western produce industry are on the fast track to create new self-reform procedures designed to head off any future E. coli or other bacteria outbreaks in fresh produce before lawmakers and regulators adopt more heavy-handed laws and regulations than are necessary.

Specialty crop leaders addressed the industry’s proactive, round-the-clock efforts during a panel discussion on “Spinach Today: What Else Tomorrow?” at the Western Growers Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., in November.

The fresh produce industry has been plowing new ground in search of even stricter food safety standards since the Food and Drug Administration’s announcement on Sept. 14 of an outbreak of food born disease related to E. coli O157:H7, which was later confirmed in California fresh spinach bagged.

“The E. coli issue is front and center for all of you. Those of us involved are trying to tackle the elephant in different ways,” said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association. “We are committed and all of us need to handle a different piece of the elephant to address the challenges facing the produce industry.”

The UFPA was formed by the merger of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, where Stenzel previously served as CEO, and the International Fresh Cut Produce Association.

“Food safety challenges didn’t start in the produce industry on Sept. 14,” he noted. “We’ve been working on it everyday. Don’t just be caught up in crisis mode. We need to step back and look at our industry’s food safety efforts, and look at changing our own business model.”

Jim Bogart, president and general counsel of the Grower Shipper Association of Central California said, “These are unprecedented times. Life as we have known it is over.” He represents 300 growers, packers, shippers, processors, cold storage facilities, and others in the vegetable industry in California’s Monterrey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Benito counties.

He noted that agriculture has developed good food safety practices in the last decade that has gained the favorable attention of consumers, government and the media.

Citing the fact that produce is exposed to natural elements such as birds and other wildlife in fields that for the most part are out of growers’ control, Bogart noted, “Unfortunately, we cannot grow our products in a bio-dome or a laboratory. We are at the mercy of the environment.”

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com