– Changes to a trio of food safety bills now in the state
Legislature would put leafy greens industry regulation in the hands
of state health officials.
Hollister – Changes to a trio of food safety bills now in the state Legislature would put leafy greens industry regulation in the hands of state health officials.
However, some local growers believe adequate safety standards are already being implemented by the industry itself.
Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, introduced three bills aimed at placing tougher safety guidelines on the leafy greens industry after an E. coli outbreak in September 2006 linked to spinach grown and packaged in San Benito County sickened 204 people and killed three throughout the nation.
After passing through the Senate Health Committee last Wednesday, the three bills have been amended to place the control of safety standards in the Department of Public Health’s hands instead of the industry’s.
However, some local growers are already operating under stricter safety guidelines, said Richard Silva, a leafy green grower and vice president of the San Benito County Farm Bureau. Many local growers are opposed to government regulation.
“Government regulation may not be as necessary as some people may have thought,” Silva said.
San Benito County Agricultural Commissioner Paul Matulich said Florez is not a friend of agriculture.
“Florez is trying to put his will on everybody else,” Matulich said. “He doesn’t seem to favor growers at all.”
Florez did not return phone calls from the Free Lance on Monday.
Matulich said the industry has been working with government agencies to develop safety practices since the outbreak. Besides adding safety practices, Matulich said research into how E. coli spreads will also be vital to future battles against food-borne illnesses.
The safety guidelines come in the form of a marketing agreement and are applied to produce shippers and handlers. The marketing agreement, which is administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, took effect at the beginning of April.
Thus far, 71 handlers in California, representing 99 percent of the industry, have signed up for the marketing agreement, according to the CDFA.
Companies operating in San Benito County that have signed up for the agreement include Fresh N’ Healthy in Hollister and Church Brothers and Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista.
Under the marketing agreement, Silva said many growers have already implemented safety practices, such as tracking produce and stricter water testing.
Silva said the industry is implementing the practices despite little direction from the final report on the outbreak released in March.
“We’re not quite sure what happened,” Silva said. “But we’re asking the tough questions of what might have happened.”
And with $88 million, or 32 percent, of the value of San Benito County’s agricultural economy wrapped up in leafy greens in 2005, growers hope the changes will help to prevent future outbreaks and raise consumer confidence.
“I think it’s going to be a real positive in the future,” Silva said.
Michael Van Cassell covers public safety for the Free Lance. He can be reached at 831-637-5566 ext. 335 or [email protected]