Inspired by the spinach scare, new California rules could wilt small farmers
This is a guest essay by Judith Redmond, co-owner of Northern California’s legendary Full Belly Farm and president of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. California is on the verge of adopting a policy that would regulate all of the state’s salad greens-producing farms — including ones that sell to a local market — as if they were huge operations that ship cross-country. That’s as predictable as it is absurd — another case of the problems caused by industrial agriculture being used as a tool to consolidate industrial ag’s power. The essay originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee.
California’s bountiful vegetable industry has long been known as the nation’s salad bowl. But over the past 20 years, a revolution has occurred, planting the seeds for the current crisis of consumer confidence in food safety.
Much of California-grown "leafy greens," including spinach and lettuce, now go to the bagged salad mix market. This transformation from fresh to processed salads has created lucrative new and distant markets, but also has set the stage for heightened food safety concerns that do not exist with traditionally grown salad.
Since last year’s terrible spinach E. coli outbreak that sickened 200 and took the lives of three, California’s agricultural industry has worked overtime to create uniform "food safety" growing standards for leafy greens. The industry-driven Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) includes signatories from more than 100 handlers, shippers, and buyers who promise to buy only from growers who meet these safety standards. For the more than 95 percent of California leafy greens growers who sell through these channels, the standards are now mandatory.
Soon all farmers who grow leafy greens in California may be required to comply with the LGMA. If this occurs, applying these standards across the board will not protect the public health or solve the state’s E. coli problem, and could destroy our internationally heralded family farm economy.
Data provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and analyzed by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers show that since 1999, 98.5 percent of E. coli illnesses from leafy greens in California have been traced to processed, bagged salad. The recent recall of E. coli-contaminated Dole bagged salad mix underscores this problem.
Risks of cross-contamination increase in centralized washing and packaging of mixed produce from different farms. Precut salads are sealed in plastic bags, which may create an ideal environment for bacterial growth if not kept cold at all times. While all farmers should follow safe practices, unprocessed leafy greens should not be in the same category as processed, bagged greens or swept up into rules that are ill-suited to diverse, local farms.
During our more than 20 years of organic farming in Yolo County, my partners and I have worked hard to create a healthy, diverse system. Our soil is full of life that wards off diseases and human pathogens. Most farms such as ours have employed reasonable precautions against human pathogens, including water testing, worker training, and disinfection of harvest equipment.
However, the industry has used the LGMA rules as a precedent to strike against the heart of biological agriculture, calling for sterile zones on farms, fences to keep wildlife out, cancellation of conservation projects and removal of grassed waterways. There is no scientific basis behind the demands made by the handlers and buyers, and the effect on conservation practices and the environment has been devastating. Eighty-nine percent of growers recently surveyed by the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County reported to have adopted at least one measure to actively discourage or eliminate wildlife from cropped areas.
One year after the spinach outbreak, critics of the LGMA argue that industry should not be allowed to write its own rules and that California’s legislators should provide adequate food safety measures. But before writing more rules that don’t work on the ground and that have seriously negative unintended consequences, we must understand what it is about modern agricultural practices that has resulted in increasing problems with this super-bug, and what new interventions are needed to reduce its levels on our food and in the agricultural environment. This is likely to involve a hard look at industrialized cattle operations, as well as the use of public health dollars to go after contaminants at their source.
Going to war against family farmers, wildlife and conservation practices is the wrong approach. It will not solve the state’s E. coli problem, and it will only hurt family farmers and threaten our access to locally grown, fresh leafy greens.