California Legislator, Growers Prepare Dueling Plans to Prevent E. Coli Outbreaks
LOS ANGELES -- A California legislator is butting heads with farmers over his proposed regulations to protect lettuce, spinach and other crops from replays of the E. coli outbreaks that killed three people and sickened hundreds of others across the country in recent months.
State Sen. Dean Florez plans to introduce a bill Feb. 1 that calls for a system to track produce from fields to store shelves and forces growers to further protect crops from contaminated water and stray animals that can spread bacteria.
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, which represents the fresh produce industry in California and Arizona, is preparing a self-regulating scheme to head off Florez, who represents the agriculture-rich southern San Joaquin Valley.
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.
Florez invited the industry to adopt its own rules as his bill moves through Sacramento.
Then, he said, "once our regulation comes into effect, there will be very little cost for them."
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.
The California agriculture industry, which produces about three-quarters of the nation's lettuce and spinach, took a huge financial hit from the recent E. coli outbreaks.
Investigators linked a strain of E. coli that killed three people and sickened more than 200 others in September to wild pigs that may have spread the bacteria in a Salinas Valley spinach field.
Spinach was pulled from grocery shelves as authorities investigated the source of the problem.
Food and Drug Administration officials said this month that lettuce grown in the Central Valley was the likely source of an E. coli outbreak in December that sickened about 80 customers at Taco John's restaurants in Minnesota and Iowa.
The source of lettuce blamed for 70 cases linked to Taco Bell restaurants on the East Coast remained unknown.
Vessey and other farmers agreed that steps must be taken to ensure safety and strengthen confidence in California produce. But government regulations could be costly and put growers in jeopardy of being punished for outbreaks beyond their control, he said.
Tom Russell, president of Salinas-based grower Pacific International Marketing, said he decided the industry must devise a plan to regulate itself after hearing Florez discuss his proposal.
"It sounded like someone who really doesn't know our industry is going to regulate it," Russell said. "I thought, we need to do something ourselves."
The Western Growers plan would be implemented through a marketing agreement among produce shippers and handlers that agree to buy only from growers who build fences to keep stray animals away from crops and to routinely test their irrigation water for bacteria, among other requirements.
Produce companies that follow the rules could print a state Food and Agriculture Department seal on their packaging as a sign to consumers the product was grown under safe conditions.
Public health advocates warn that the plan by growers doesn't guarantee that all farmers will live up to its standards and that it provides no formal enforcement mechanism.
Health officials believe most cases of E. coli contamination stem from produce coming into contact with bacteria-laden animal feces. The problem can occur when animals track bacteria from feedlots or dairies into produce farms, or when rain spreads manure from livestock areas into crop fields.
Both proposals will specify how large and deeply buried fences must be to keep out stray animals, and how far away from livestock areas crops can be grown. Both will likely specify allowable bacteria levels in irrigation water.
Florez said his rules would go further by banning the use of manure as fertilizer and reclaimed water for irrigation.
Under his plan, shippers and handlers would also have to create a "trace back" system to enable health officials to quickly determine where contaminated produce was grown.
During the recent outbreaks, it took weeks to identify the likely sources of the E. coli, leaving consumers to wonder whether their food was safe.
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.
Source: Associated Press