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California Leafy Greens Annual Report Reflects A Well Run System For Upholding Food Safety Practices

Out of the ashes of the Spinach crisis of 2006 was born the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement, which led to the establishment of a sister organization in Arizona and may yet lead to a national organization.

Last year, we lauded the willingness of the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement to decertify companies who weren’t conforming to standards in a piece we titled Leafy Green Marketing Agreement Reviews Its Audits And Actions: New Report Released.

Now the CLGMA has released its 2009/2010 report:

2009/2010 LGMA Annual Report Just Released

Food safety audits of California’s leafy greens farmers increased 51% last year, according to LGMA’s newly released annual report.

The report shows the LGMA’s 2008/09 major accomplishments including:

  • Mandatory government audits increased in quantity and rigor.
  • The flexible nature of the LGMA’s food safety practices was clearly demonstrated with the addition of important new “metrics” designed to prevent pathogens from entering leafy greens fields.
  • A computerized database system was created to capture and maintain important information collected from each audit of leafy greens fields.
  • Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was formally recognized for his role in establishing the LGMA.
  • Research results show that consumers have confidence in the LGMA program

When it comes to food safety, boring is very good, so we are pleased to report that this year’s CLGMA annual report is mostly a snoozer. The overall impression is of a well run organization steadily making incremental improvements.

This year the metrics were updated to reflect information learned from a 2006 FDA investigation regarding the possibility that waste water from dairies or other animal operation might come into contact with irrigation water used to grow leafy greens. There was a new database developed and unannounced inspections were implemented.

Some sensationalists will surely pull out some of the detailed numbers that indicate there were more citations issued this year than last — but a careful reading shows that is really a function of more audits and a shift in auditing from paper-trail verifications to field audits.

The report includes a nice tip of the hat to the Center for Produce Safety for funding research in this field and well it should.

If one wanted to critique the CLGMA, the most trenchant critique would be that we simply don’t know all that much about things like E. coli 0157:H7 and about what produces food safety. Therefore the CLGMA uses a science-based, yet commonsensical approach.

For example, the initiation of unannounced audits seems like it would be good for food safety; it would seem to encourage habitual food safety habits and a culture of sustaining food safety practices rather than cramming for an audit once a year — so, for those sort of commonsensical reasons, we applaud such a change. Yet, in reality, there is no rigorous science showing than farms with unannounced audits produce safer food that firms that undergo only announced audits.

There is still a case for mandatory government action: the 1 or 2% of the industry that doesn’t sign up is troublesome, even if they are mostly small farmers.

And the occasional decertification is both meritorious — because it shows the program has backbone — and troubling — because these miscreants seem to still find a home for their produce somewhere.

The national program proposal is, of course, designed to address the obvious issue that leafy greens from other states and countries are not necessarily produced under the same standards.

By and large, the program is doing its job and doing it well. The fact that there are no fireworks should not distract us from the fact that it is a model for the world.

Which doesn’t mean there can’t be another outbreak tomorrow.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have written that “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” The price of food safety is no less, and the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is the industry’s expression of a willingness to pay that price.

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