Ag at Large: In food, safety is dominant

Don Curlee | Contributed

A new era in the protection of our food supplies has just begun, and the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is its energized watchdog.

The FDA’s traditional oversight of drug purity, distribution and food authenticity was given a broader and deeper responsibility when the U.S. government enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011 and assigned responsibility for its enforcement to the FDA. Several fresh produce items grown in abundance in California are included under the broadened scope of the act.

Lingering memories of food illnesses in the United States in 2006 (spinach), 2008 (peppers), 2010 (cantaloupes), and 2012 (widespread listeria) seemed to motivate Congress to weave stricter and broader food safety measures into the FSMA, especially for foods that are shipped and consumed in their fresh condition.

For California, many of the foods that fall under the act are leafy greens – lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, the popular kale and others. About 125 growers who produce them are covered by the state’s Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). “Covered” means they are obligated by statute to contribute to the welfare and order of the industry and its products and abide by certain industry-adopted standards, rules and procedures.

The existence of the marketing agreement, authorized by the California Department of Food & Agriculture, gives the state’s growers of leafy greens a leg up in complying with the strict, rigid demands of the new FSMA. Administrator of the marketing agreement Scott Horsfall explains that food cleanliness is now the law of the land, that growers and shippers of fresh products must comply with standards that ensure food safety and that any violations will bring strong repercussions. Fines may be substantial.

But Horsfall indicates that the still-young state marketing agreement originally adopted standards that are at least as tough as the federal rules, and in some cases more demanding and rigid. He projects that the stricter federal involvement by FDA will strengthen and probably expand the membership of the California organization.

It was natural that California’s lush fields that produce tens of thousands of acres of leafy greens year round were the first site for FDA to evaluate and inspect. FDA administrator Dr. Stephen Ostroff  was ushered by Horsfall and California Secretary of Food & Agriculture Karen Ross on a recent farm-to-fork tour of fruit and nut orchards and grape vineyards in Fresno County as well as vegetable and berry fields in the Salinas Valley.

Horsfall could not speak for the FDA executive but said his own response to the brief tour of food production areas was positive. He doesn’t expect growers of food items in California to have to make major adjustments in their practices, because many of them are following standards more stringent than those established by FDA, especially the members of his marketing agreement.

He reiterated a point that growers and shippers of fresh fruits and vegetables often make. by describing the industry as handler driven.  Whether demand originates with giant supermarket chains, terminal operators who supply smaller outlets or institutional buyers who supply the mass feeding spectrum, their demands for quality, freshness and purity dictate the market. If growers don’t produce to their standards they don’t buy.  

Ross, Horsfall and other agricultural leaders will have added responsibilities in making sure that several new and more demanding procedures for growing and handling fresh-food products are applied.

It’s not that the products now under tighter federal scrutiny have not been produced under the highest standards of cleanliness and health. And it’s not that tons of fresh fruits and vegetables going to dozens of America’s major food handlers daily have resulted in sickness, disease or discomfort. It’s just that federal influence seeking tighter regulation of all that we eat, drink, bathe in or breathe has prevailed once more.