SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a move viewed as redundant and unnecessary by much of the produce industry, the California State Senate has passed three bills that would give the state recall authority for tainted produce, set safety standards for leafy-greens production and establish a traceback system for contaminated produce.
State Sen. Dean Florez drafted the three-bill package shortly after last fall's E. coli outbreak. However, many industry groups are opposed to the bills, which duplicate many of the oversights, inspections and safety improvements already present in the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which California's produce growers developed and implemented earlier this year in conjunction with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and other state agencies.
“While we share a goal to enhance food safety, we oppose the Florez bills as the wrong approach to get the job done,” Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of Washington-based United Fresh Produce Association, told SN.
“A state-by-state legislative approach would create a balkanized patchwork of rules that wouldn't really protect the public. Setting regulatory standards for food safety is a national responsibility, and that's the only way to ensure the same standards are met no matter where a product is grown or processed. We strongly support FDA doing its job in setting public health standards that apply equally across the nation and also for imported foods.”
Senate Bill 200 would give the Department of Health Services authority to recall or destroy produce in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak. S.B. 201 mandates a set of good agricultural practices for leafy greens growers and would require documentation that they are followed through Department of Health Services reviews. S.B. 202 would establish a traceback system to be used when contaminated produce is found.
“We urge the California Assembly and the governor to oppose these bills, and instead support both industry efforts to enhance practices, and federal efforts to bring consistency to standards across the whole food supply,” Stenzel said.
The specific legislation has been changed many times in the last couple of months, which shows some confusion, and it will probably be changed again, according to Tim Chelling, spokesman for Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif.
“We think these bills are redundant and unnecessary, and we just think it's a flawed legislation,” Chelling told SN.
“One of the rationales is that Sen. Florez says that the state must be involved in this. Well, the state is involved. This Marketing Agreement is a state of California official regulatory body with state employee inspectors out in the field, so this is not an industry program, this is a state of California program.”
While the bills must still go to committee and then be heard by the State Assembly, WGA is focusing its attention on the Marketing Agreement, as inspections have begun and growers are gearing up for a full cycle of crops for the summer, which is most important to WGA, Chelling said. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has reportedly not taken a position on the bills.
Although the California Marketing Agreement is voluntary, 111 handlers in the state have signed on, accounting for approximately 99.7% of all leafy greens production in the state, according to Chelling. The Marketing Agreement created mandatory handling procedures for fresh spinach and other leafy greens and includes an inspection and certification program overseen by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
“The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has been an excellent example of our industry's commitment to do all we can to put in place rigorous standards and measure our own compliance,” said Stenzel.
“These industry-led efforts, in conjunction with federal action that brings uniformity to food safety regulatory oversight, are far more effective than California or any other state passing its own rules.”