Produce Industry Moves Toward Safety Rules

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In response to a string of safety scares this year, large supermarket chains and food service suppliers are demanding that the industry adopt uniform safety practices for handling fruits and vegetables.


The produce industry has long fought attempts to regulate how it grows and handles fruits and vegetables. But after this year's string of safety scares, including the big spinach scare, large supermarket chains and food service suppliers are demanding changes. They want the industry to adapt uniform safety practices that can be verified.

And the produce industry is listening, as NPR's Snigdha Prakash reports.

SNIGDHA PRAKASH: The spinach scare was a wake up call for big buyers. Tim York is chief executive officer of Markon Cooperative, which buys produce for everything from restaurants to prisons. He says even now, sales of spinach and other salad greens haven't recovered.

Mr. TIM YORK (Chief Executive Officer, Markon Cooperative): What really became evident was that one person or one failed system can pull the whole industry down and that certainly is what happened.

PRAKASH: Indeed, the spinach e-coli outbreak was the 20th outbreak to affect produce over the past 11 years and this time, York says, big buyers such as the Markon Cooperative and supermarket chains like Safeway, Kroger and Wegmans and the retail giant Costco, are demanding change.

Mr. YORK: We need one standard that everybody is being held accountable to, a standard that says this is how you grow products and this is how you grow products safely. And those standards have to be specific, measurable and verifiable.

PRAKASH: In October, the buyers wrote to the three large trade associations that represent produce farmers and processors, urging them to develop such standards by February and warning that if the associations didn't, the buyers would develop their own standards.

Jim Gorney is senior vice president for food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association. He says the three trade groups are developing quantifiable best practices related to irrigation water quality, the hygiene of field and processing plant workers and, Gorney says, the proximity of spinach and lettuce fields to e-coli sources.

Mr. JIM GORNEY (Senior Vice President for Food Safety and Technology, United Fresh Produce Association): For instance, cattle operations. How close is too close and what risk factors do you have to weigh to increase or decrease that proximity to those operations?

PRAKASH: The e-coli in this year's contaminated spinach was traced to a nearby cattle ranch, though it's not known whether the bacteria traveled from ranch to field with help from wild pigs, water runoff, wind or other means. Gorney says independent third parties would monitor and certify best practices.

But Charles Sweat, chief executive officer of the company at the heart of the spinach scare, Earthbound Farm in California, doubts these efforts will vanquish the threat from e-coli.

Mr. CHARLES SWEAT (Chief Executive Officer, Earthbound Farm): There's not a lot of science behind this bacteria and how it behaves, so what happens is you have everybody with their experience and opinions piping in and typically what happens at that point, you get to the lowest common denominator that everybody can agree to.

PRAKASH: Meanwhile at least one retailer, Costco, which has not sold raw spinach since that September outbreak, has just issued its own set of safety standards for spinach and lettuce. Costco will also do its own tests and Charles Sweat says his company is ready to meet those standards. The broader industry standards are expected to be in place by April, in time for the start of the growing season in California's Salinas Valley. Meanwhile, one of the three large produce trade associations has also asked the State of California to step up its safety regulation.

Snigdha Prakash, NPR News, Washington.

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