E.J. Schultz of the Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau wrote late last year about “Plans could give spinach seal of approval – After E. coli outbreaks, various proposals seek safer produce handling.”

Consumers buying California-grown lettuce and spinach could soon be seeing a safety seal of approval, under an industry-backed proposal formulated in the wake of recent E. coli outbreaks.

Despite industry promises of a mandatory program, the draft proposal shows the initiative to be voluntary and open only to shippers and packers. The plan was designed by the Western Growers Association and other trade groups, with the state Department of Food and Agriculture taking an advisory role.

Spurred on by September’s deadly Salinas Valley-based E. coli outbreak, the Western Growers Association in October promised “enhanced and mandatory food safety processes on all aspects of growing, packing, processing and shipping of spinach and leafy greens.”

But state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, criticized the plan as weak. “I don’t think it does a thing to make a consumer feel any better about lettuce or spinach in their mouth,” said Florez, who plans to hold a legislative hearing on the proposal.

An Op-ed in www.insidebayarea.com recently opined: “Food industry’s safety plan needs more teeth.”

The Western Growers Association and other agriculture trade groups have drafted a voluntary plan to address concern about food safety. The system would involve attaching safety seals of approval to packages of such items as lettuce and spinach. Consumers could then ostensibly accept the seals as assurance that the food in it is safe.

It also falls short of Western Growers’ promise in October that it would implement “enhanced and mandatory food safety processes on all aspects of growing, packing, processing and shipping spinach and leafy greens.”

An all-voluntary system isn’t good enough. We need one with some teeth. When public pressure and problems over recent food supply contamination dies down, we need to be confident that better growing, safety and handling standards exist and are being met.

Voluntary compliance has lead to over 20 E. coli outbreaks tied to spinach and lettuce over the last several years.  Clearly, the industry has not been able to police itself and protect consumers.  That being said, unless resources are given to local, state and federal regulators, mandatory compliance will be worthless.  Personally, whatever route is taken, voluntary or mandatory, the industry needs to think of consumers like they would a member of their family – would they feel comfortable feeding the product to their own child?