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New standards, seals guaranteeing food safety could be on the way

January 26, 2007

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Tom Ragan

The Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau is speaking out against legislative attempts to hold leafy green growers more accountable in the event their produce is contaminated with E. coli.

It's not that the Farm Bureau doesn't want to head off outbreaks. It just thinks state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, is going about it the wrong way.

Next week, Florez plans to introduce a bill that would impose fines and institute a more intricate system that would track contaminated produce from the fields to the store shelves.

The Farm Bureau believes that bill is the wrong route, given that hundreds of farmers across the state are in the midst of imposing stricter safety standards on themselves.

"We need the practices that farmers are currently working on to be in place right away in order to gain consumer confidence," said Jess Brown of the county Farm Bureau. "The legislation and the entire process will take more time. And it will be onerous"

But Florez, whose district lies in the Central Valley, said it's time the state steps in to avoid future outbreaks of E. coli.

"Consumers expect the government to protect their food supply," Florez said in a telephone interview.

As it is now, an estimated 700 lettuce growers across the state are working toward setting a new set of guidelines followed by a seal of approval — an attempt to assure buyers California produce has been inspected and handled accordingly.

The state Department of Agriculture would oversee the seal approval program, but some have been critical of the self-imposed regulations, saying they are merely a symbolic act on the part of lettuce growers to calm the public.

A potent strain of E. coli in spinach killed three and sickened nearly 200 others across the country in September.

Some of the grower-proposed regulations include building fences to keep wildlife out, testing the irrigation water more frequently and handling compost and manure with greater care.

The legislation virtually mirrors the same precautions, although it would levy fines and require some vegetable farmers to acquire licenses to grow, a measure that would raise the $20 million it would cost the California Department of Health Services to carry out inspections yearly, Florez said.

Dick Peixoto, a Pajaro Valley vegetable farmer for three decades, thinks the Legislature should stay out of the growing end of the business.

"I just think it's overreaction," he said. "We serve billions of salads a day; not millions, billions. And there was one problem out here. So now we're going to redo the whole industry?"

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