Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Dueling Plans Target E. Coli Outbreaks

According to Jacob Adelman of the Associated Press, State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, is butting heads with farmers over proposed regulations. The regulations would:

1. force growers to protect their crops by monitoring water quality
2. restrict wild animals from farm areas
3. call for a system to track produce from fields to store shelves
4. ban the use of manure as fertilizer and reclaimed water for irrigation

According to the AP, the new regulations promoted by Florez would be tougher and more precisely worded than the current state guidelines that urge growers to be mindful of bacteria sources but specify no punishment for problems. Florez wants the state to allocate as much as $25 million to pay for government inspectors who will have the authority to quarantine fields that violate the regulations.

Unfortunately, the legislation is proving to be a hard sell to state farmers who could have their crops condemned if they’re caught violating its rules.

The Western Growers Association, is preparing a self-regulating scheme to head off Florez. Their plan would require handlers and shippers to buy from growers who can show they protected crops against E. coli and other contamination.

“We’re the guys who understand our business and what needs to be done,” said Imperial Valley spinach and lettuce farmer Jack Vessey, who supports the industry-led approach.

Of course the industry hasn’t done a thing over the last ten years and twenty-one outbreaks to solve the problem, so why should we believe them now?

From USA Today:

Some farmers are leery of having state laws govern them and would rather set the rules themselves, said Jasper Hempel, general counsel for the Western Growers Association, which has more than 3,000 members in the fruit and vegetable industry.

Some California legislators say the safety standards should be set by the state. “Should our health and safety standards be in the hands of an industry that has been the source of so many contaminations in the past?” asks Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez.

Consumer groups fear that the rules will be hammered out behind closed doors with little input from the public. “Industry self-regulation seldom protects consumers and often provides industry with cover when contamination occurs,” said Elisa Odabashian, director of the West Coast office of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

The real question is whether any of these standards will really make food safer, says Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan. Simply following current guidelines known as Good Agricultural Practices, such as providing field workers with portable toilets and testing irrigation and produce wash water for E. coli, would go a long way toward making food safer, he says. “Every farmer has to create a culture that values food safety on each and every farm,” Powell says.

AP this morning noted:

Some members of the industry said they want even stronger regulations than those in the marketing agreement. which covers California produce companies.

“It quite frankly needs to be done on a federal level and on a mandatory level because that’s what the public needs to hear,” said Steve Dickstein, a spokesman for Irwindale-based Ready Pac Produce.

The United Fresh Produce Association, which represents growers nationwide, has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to institute federal produce-handling standards.