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Race Is On For Mandatory Regulation

Our piece, Fresh Express Signs California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, detailed our take on the decision by Fresh Express to join the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. United Fresh President Tom Stenzel issued a statement on the same issue:

April 2, 2007

The decision by Fresh Express to support the California leafy greens food safety agreement demonstrates the company’s ongoing support for strong food safety standards. The California agreement serves as an important first step and transition to federal adoption of rigorous food safety metrics for leafy greens that can apply uniformly to produce grown domestically or imported into the United States.

Fresh Express’ decision also reflects a commitment advocated by our association that food safety should not be a competitive issue. While the company’s own standards for its growers may already include all of the food safety steps called for in the agreement, Fresh Express nevertheless is committing its technical leadership and financial support to boost these industry wide efforts. In our discussions with company leaders, it was clear that Fresh Express made this decision in the spirit of industry unity and a commitment to working together to help our entire industry deliver safe and healthy fresh produce to the public.

The Good Agricultural Practices adopted for leafy greens under the California agreement were developed with strong leadership from United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau. The 50-member United Fresh Food Safety and Technology Council, consisting of food safety experts from every produce business sector, provided extensive work in developing the metrics, which were also reviewed with government and academic experts.

We now look forward to working closely with all leafy greens producers, processors and the government and to see these uniform food safety standards put in place for the current growing season in California and then across the leafy greens industry.

The key issue for United Fresh now is how to transition from this particular agreement covering one product category in one state to United’s position calling for uniform national standards adopted by the Federal government that, to the extent possible, will be based on the science-based metrics that are now in force on a voluntary basis.

Although many in the industry may be content with the marketing agreement — especially if a parallel agreement can be set up in Arizona — figuring that with virtually 100% product enrollment, we have de facto mandatory regulation, there is a big problem with this argument. Forget for a moment about other commodities and other states… this is a voluntary agreement which means that companies have the right to withdraw.

If we are fortunate enough to go a few seasons without an outbreak, the thing we can count on is that as the public urgency on this matter fades, other issues are going to take a more prominent position.

And one day, somebody is going to get upset: Perhaps they won’t like the composition of the board or the board will make a decision that they disagree with.

And it is not a question of if, but a question of when. Eventually someone will withdraw. So despite the enormous temptation to just take a deep breath and relax, we actually haven’t a moment to lose.

There is a race on right now, for the industry to move ahead on a mandatory process before someone decides to quit the voluntary one.

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