The California Department of Food and Agriculture trumpets in its most recent press release the fact that:
The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which would establish an inspection program for handlers of leafy greens, has been certified by the California Department of Food and Agriculture following sign-ups by handlers representing 70 percent of leafy greens produced in California.
But California State Senator Dean Florez, chairman of the newly formed Senate Select Committee on Food-borne Illness, berates the industry for dismal participation in the voluntary marketing agreement:
Despite a dismal 14 percent participation rate by processors that Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, says calls into question the true commitment of the industry to ensuring the safety of leafy greens, the California Department of Agriculture today said a voluntary marketing agreement proposed by the leafy green industry to self-regulate has enough support to move forward.
Florez, who has introduced three bills to enhance state oversight of leafy greens and improve the state’s response to future outbreaks of food-borne illness, immediately announced plans for a hearing on the agreement upon learning that only 24 of 170 processors had signed on to purchase only from growers who follow specific standards.
“I think it’s more than a little disingenuous to make people think 70 percent of processors are on board to participate in a much-needed revamp of this industry, when the real numbers tell a very different story,” Florez said. “Consumers would not read CDFA’s announcement to say that, in fact, less than one in six processors have signed on. Those few large processors cannot presume to speak for everyone at the expense of achieving real food safety.”
Assuming both these players have their numbers correct, what does this tell us?
First, that most of the small-volume processors around the state have not signed up. This means that the bulk of the industry’s actual food safety problem, smaller substandard processors, will not be affected by the marketing agreement.
Although, of course, they could still be impacted if buyers refuse to buy from those who are not parties to the agreement.
This is precisely the path suggested by Dole, the largest and most prominent processor to sign on, which issued its own announcement:
Dole Fresh Vegetables, Inc., a subsidiary of Dole Food Company, Inc., today announced that it has signed the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. Under the voluntary agreement, all participants must adhere to established good agricultural practices (GAP) and food safety guidelines. Dole has always used GAP in all its growing operations and the company has been a strong supporter of the agreement as a standard for the industry. Dole has taken food safety one step further by applying the California standards in all states where its leafy greens are grown.
The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement will set mandatory and specific standards for leafy greens supply; the California Department of Health Services will monitor compliance with the new standards. Facilitated by the Western Growers Association, Dole worked collaboratively with a group that consisted of growers, processors, regulators and members of academia to formulate the agreement.
Eric Schwartz, president of Dole Fresh Vegetables, 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. We strongly encourage our retail and food service customers to support the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement by requiring their produce suppliers to sign this agreement.” Schwartz also commented: “Food safety is our top priority. This is another example of our commitment to work with government, industry leaders, trade organizations and food safety experts to continuously seek ways to improve and enhance food safety for consumers.”
The key words in the release: “We strongly encourage our retail and food service customers to support the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement by requiring their produce suppliers to sign this agreement.”
We have a late report from the CDFA that it now has 85 percent of production signing on to the marketing order. The industry now has to find out who is prepared to support those processors that won’t sign.
That mentality — an unwillingness to restrict one’s supply chain to exclude substandard operators — is at the root of the trade’s food safety issues.