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.”

Charting new food safety standards

Produce leaders are wrapping up risk assessment efforts that address the potential areas of contamination and compromise.

“What we've been trying to do is base them on sound science. There is some sound science in some areas and no science in others. Where do we fill in those gaps?” he asked. The industry has been focusing on water, soil amendments and wildlife, and the related methods, numbers and distances.

Separate meetings were held in Salinas, Calif., with growers and processors where related questions and issues were addressed.

Questions asked included, “What are customers demanding? What is your experience? Where can we begin to fill in the numbers that need to be realistic and effective? Where does sound science exist so we can plug in those numbers? The plan is to fold the information back to specific commodities through guidelines and other documents.

“It's a big undertaking that we cannot afford to bypass,” said Bogart. “We want to have a hand in drafting this document, whether it is a marketing order or a regulation. We have an opportunity to have a say and we fully intend to do that to make it real and effective. We want 100 percent compliance 100 percent of the time.” The new system would have a check and balance verification system.

Beating the reform clock

Produce leaders hope to have a draft wrapped up by mid-December, ahead of the opening gavel of the California Legislature's session in January.

Bogart said California State Sen. Dean Flores, D-Shafter, intends to introduce a comprehensive food safety bill. “What he will propose will be a lot worse than what we develop which will be based on factual information, sound science, and reality,” Bogart said.

Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif agreed that agriculture must develop its own plan. But he said the industry must work in partnership with lawmakers and regulators to develop efforts that don't unnecessarily overburden growers.

“We'll work to ensure that we're in a partnership to develop documents everyone will buy into,” said Nassif. “We need to prove once and for all to consumers that we are doing everything possible to make sure that we have the safest food supply in the world. Much needs to be done to pull this together.”

But Nassif pointed out that food safety comes at a price. Increased costs associated with stricter safety standards must be passed from the grower to the shipper, processor, retailer, food service, and ultimately to the consumer.

“This industry cannot afford to keep adding cost after cost and become less competitive in the world. Costs must be shared along the whole food supply chain and end with the consumer,” Nassif said. “The consumer has told us that they are willing to pay more for safe food.”

Public confidence growing for spinach

Since the FDA's removal of the E. coli health advisory, consumers perceived safety of bagged spinach is rebounding.

The Produce Marketing Association conducted nationwide studies from Sept. 18-19 and Oct. 10-12 of 1,000 consumers by phone that were the main food shopper in the household.

PMA President Bryan Silbermann shared the key results.

  • One in five consumers rated bagged spinach (in October) as “very safe” with only 8 percent who said that in September. The mean score is 4.7 on a 7-point scale, compared with only 2.7 percent in September, while 8 percent responded “not safe at all” in October;

  • Seventy-two percent of the shoppers who previously bought spinach now say it is either “very likely” (44 percent) or “somewhat likely” (28 percent) that they will purchase fresh bagged spinach again;

  • Almost half of the October sample (47 percent) said they had either already bought spinach again (10 percent) or would do so in a few weeks (37 percent);

  • Fity-six percent of shoppers said the recent spinach incident had little impact (28 percent) or no impact at all (28 percent) on their overall purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables; and

  • Sixty-four percent of the sample felt the produce industry had done either an “excellent” or “good” job handling the spinach incident — down 5 percent since September's 69 percent.

Sterilization as an answer

As industry leaders look for safe food solutions, a long-term answer embraced by Pacific International Marketing President Tom Russell was the need for a kill step during produce processing.

“We need a right to sterilize law, a kill step just like what is used in canned goods, frozen products and milk. If someone doesn't want us to sterilize their produce, then they need to sign a disclaimer that says, ‘May include E. coli, listeria, and botulism,' and sign off on it as opposed to me signing off, Russell said.

Tom Stenzel agreed. “We're not going to get perfection in growing crops out in the natural environment. If we lead people to think we are, the industry fills any gaps, regulations are created, and another outbreak occurs, we've just totally destroyed our credibility.” From a research standpoint, he said the idea of a kill step for fresh produce is a critical option whether the x-ray approach or another method.

While no one mentioned what type of x-ray, irradiation is the method generally used with other products.

Yet concern was expressed that the organic produce industry would likely oppose the kill step option because it could threaten organic certification. Anything less than full cooperation between conventional and organic grown produce would doom the kill step.

Silbermann said general research indicates consumers don't expect perfection 100 percent of the time. Yet consumers do expect the produce industry to do their best job 100 percent of the time.