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by Laura Smith

Consider this over lunch: The state and federal governments have layers of safety measures meant to ensure food safety, but they're not very effective--and they haven't been for a long time.

Still hungry? Food producers--especially fresh food growers--are still reeling from the aftershocks caused by the E. coli outbreak of 2006. Subsequent high-profile recalls of peanut butter, and warnings about contaminated green onions and lettuce at several fast food chains, illustrate that governmental oversight of food producers can't guarantee safe food for consumers. Figures from the Food and Drug Administration--the agency responsible for regulating fresh food production in the United States and fresh foods imported into the country (80% of the total food volume)--illustrate this point: Between 2003 and 2006, the number of food safety inspections provided by the FDA decreased by 47 percent. For food produced in the United States, FDA safety tests have dropped by nearly 75 percent, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year, according to the FDA.

By comparison, the United States Department of Agriculture, which regulates the production of meat, poultry and processed eggs, requires daily inspections of meat and poultry plants. The agency reports that its 7,500 food safety inspectors conducted about 9.2 million inspections at about 6,000 production facilities last year.

Federal food safety inspectors have a somewhat risk-based schedule for inspections. Companies that produce foods that are more susceptible to contamination--such as fresh fruits and vegetables--are supposed to be inspected every year, according to the FDA. If they have a "good safety record," says Michael Herndon, FDA spokesman, they are inspected once every two to three years.

Even though several recent high-profile outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have heightened awareness to the importance of food safety inspections, critics point out that the FDA has 12 percent fewer field inspectors today than it did in 2003. The USDA and the FDA recently announced that they plan to tighten up regulations and inspection requirements, but the declining number of inspectors in the field--especially in the FDA--will make verifying compliance that much harder.

The result of all of this attention is a lot of frank self-reflection among food producers and distributors about how to better self-police their industry. If government can't guarantee safe foods to consumers, industry will have to--or pay a heavy price. The harvest of this effort is admirable: improved consumer perceptions of fresh foods, better sales and a more efficient--and safe--food production system.

The problem with leafy greens
Responsibility for verifying the cleanliness of food-growing, -processing and -handling facilities is split between the state and federal governments. The states have their own fresh-foods inspection agencies and procedures; in California, where 60 percent of the produce and 75 percent of the leafy greens produced in the United States are grown, the responsibility is shared by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The DHS reports that there have been 22 outbreaks of E. coli since 1997, although the E. coli outbreak during the fall of 2006--which cost California's leafy greens industry $34-74 million--has had the most long-term effect on the industry. Nowhere was it more severe than in the Salinas Valley, where the vast majority of the United States' leafy greens (spinach, various kinds of lettuce, green onions and cabbage) are grown.

Joe Pezzini, vice president of operations at Ocean Mist Farms, observes that the effects of the recall are still being felt. He estimates that his company--which grows several hundred acres of spinach and other leafy greens in Castroville, California--lost almost $1 million because of the spinach recall. The market is still only 60 percent to 70 percent of what it was last year.

"We weren't even implicated in any way in the recall," Pezzini says. "Other companies have had it even worse. It's a very, very big deal in this area."

The outbreak was a major turning point for the leafy greens industry as a whole, says Devon Zagory, Ph.D., senior vice president of food safety and quality programs for Davis Fresh Technologies, a California-based food safety certification company. In previous food-borne illness outbreaks, the FDA--which is responsible for coordinating nationwide recalls--simply recommended that consumers not buy contaminated products of a certain lot number or from a specific grower or distributor, thus minimizing the industrywide effect of the recall. The spinach incident, though, led to the wholesale recall of all spinach. All leafy greens--contaminated or not--were guilty by association. No one would touch them, and it hit growers extraordinarily hard.

"What they did is essentially take the spinach and leafy greens industry out back and shoot it dead," Zagory says. "Even growers that had no contamination were damaged by it. It forced the companies to realize that what one does affects them all."

All of this begs the question: How effective is the government at detecting pathogens in food before consumers buy it? A blunt report issued in January by the federal General Accounting Office says, "Not very." The report called the federal food safety oversight system "piecemeal" and "patchwork," and reported, "The Food and Drug Administration [which is charged with overseeing the safety of 80% of the U.S. food supply] and the United States Department of Agriculture [which has jurisdiction over the remaining 20%] do not know how to promptly and completely ensure companies are carrying out recalls, do not promptly verify that recalls have reached all segments of the distribution chain and use procedures to alert consumers to a recall that may not be effective."

Given the apparent loopholes in the current governmental inspection system, the California leafy greens industry has joined together to avoid any further food-borne illness outbreaks--and to save their flagging reputation with consumers.

Marketing agreement
Before the dust had even settled around the E. coli outbreak last fall, industry representatives gathered to discuss how to recover from the backlash. The result was the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, to which 53 of the 54 leafy greens handlers in California--representing 200 million cartons of produce annually--have signed on. Becoming a signatory to the agreement is voluntary, and once they've signed on, handlers agree to mandatory compliance. The development of the marketing agreement preempted the likely release of a state marketing order, which would have made compliance mandatory for all handlers, without industry's input into the order's requirements.

The marketing agreement sets out inspection requirements to verify that handlers are complying with the standards in the agreement. The number and design of required inspections hasn't been determined yet, but the service will be provided by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which currently employs 20 field inspectors. Products from certified handlers will be marked with a seal designating the certification, which could eventually make these products more palatable to buyers. Western Growers Association, an industry trade group, formulated the metrics that handlers will be evaluated against, although the document hasn't yet been formally approved by the marketing agreement board. Hank Glicas, vice president of the WGA, expects approval by April.

"Industry knew it needed to move fast on this, that the consumers deserved it," Glicas says. "It came together fast, but we've gotten--and are still getting--comments from everyone that will be affected by the agreement, so it's very complete. We didn't want to miss anything."

Private standards
State and federal regulations aren't the only standards to which food handlers must comply. There are dozens of standards that the industry can opt to comply with, including those of the Global Food Safety Initiative, Safe Quality Food 2000 (SQF 2000), and ISO/TS 22000, to which approximately 90 companies worldwide are registered. Certifications to SQF 2000, maintained by the Food Marketing Institute, now amount to 8,660 in 23 countries.

Compliance with these standards is a way for food handlers to demonstrate their commitment to producing high-quality products, but it doesn't satisfy government regulatory requirements. Even so, many of the requirements of certification to private standards (i.e., ISO 22000) mirror state regulations.

"I don't think there has ever been as much interest in food safety certification as there is now in the industry," says Tatiana Lorca, BSI Americas Inc. food safety coordinator. "Consumers want to know they are getting safe products, and producers know they have to ensure that--and demonstrate that assurance--to stay in business."

Food producers outside the United States have long been the largest market for private food safety certification, although the recent wave of high-profile contaminations seem be changing that. Mindful of governmental food safety regulations, U.S. consumers have historically placed their trust in government to ensure the safety of the food that they buy, but the system has lost significant public esteem because of the recent food-borne illness outbreaks. The best way to combat all the negative press is to produce measurable improvements in food safety that are obvious to the consumer--thus, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the other food safety standards.

A constant audit
John D'Arrigo, president of D'Arrigo Bros. of California, believes that the tougher food safety regulations represented by the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement should also apply to international growers that ship produce into the United States. Currently, these growers are subject to regulation by the federal government, but clearly the government can't inspect all produce that's imported to the United States. If international growers voluntarily complied with the LGMA, consumers would be safer. The focused nature of industry-produced regulations is more flexible and efficient than governmental oversight.

"I am a grower, but I am a consumer, too," D'Arrigo says. "I eat these products, and it would be nice to know that all produce--not just the stuff we produce here--meets the same standards we've set for ourselves."

Although the LGMA concerns just one segment of the fresh food market, it represents a larger trend. The spinach recall of 2006 was among the most high-profile produce recalls in history and made consumers much more aware of the danger of contamination. The fresh foods industry has responded with a proactive certification scheme that will self-regulate the industry, and if the LGMA works the way it should, the spread of similar market segment certification schemes will probably follow--as will the increasing popularity of certification to private standards. The stakes are high. Each year, about 76 million people contract a food-borne illness in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most of the sicknesses aren't serious, but about 325,000 of them--the number of people in a moderately sized suburban city--require hospitalization. About 5,000 people die annually because of food-borne illnesses.

"There is really no way of getting around our responsibility to provide and prove to consumers that they are getting a safe product," says D'Arrigo. "That's what this is all about, and I think the entire industry is excited to see how it all works out."

About the author
Laura Smith is Quality Digest's assistant editor.