2006 was not a good year for the spinach industry

Vermont Digger
by Craig Idlebrook

In September 2006, a virulent strain of E.coli infected spinach that was marketed nationwide; the E. coli strain was traced back to one California spinach farm. The resulting outbreak killed three people and sickened 199 in 26 states. Nearly half of those who contracted the strain had to be hospitalized, roughly twice the average; some who survived suffered kidney failure. How the E. coli got into the spinach still hasn’t been determined, but the greens were infected systemically from the roots; washing would do no good.

The FDA warned consumers to avoid any bagged fresh spinach and initiated a massive spinach recall throughout North America. Another E. coli outbreak in December 2006, likely from green onions, helped stir a national panic. The U.S. greens industry lost some $100 million, said Wendy Fink-Weber, director of communications for the Western Growers Association.

“Everybody suffered,” Fink-Weber said. “Everybody, large and small.”

Not so, say advocates for small-scale agriculture. In Vermont, local growers who sold their spinach in farmers markets in the Bennington area saw increased sales during the outbreak, said Steven Trubitt, a vegetable farmer who grows greens on five-acre TrueLove Farm in North Bennington.

“It was fantastic for our business. They all came to us,” said Trubitt. “They came to some place they could trust rather than the most convenient.”

Vermont farmers vs. large-scale growers.

But small-scale Vermont farmers who want to sell their greens to distributors may soon find they have to follow new regulations being advocated by large-scale greens growers in California.

Since 2009, the USDA has been formulating a marketing agreement for the leafy green market with a new set of safety rules for growers to follow. Based on the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, the new rules would require distributors who purchase greens to only buy from farmers who implement standard operating procedures to minimize the possibility of animal fecal contamination. The agreement is voluntary, but nearly all greens farmers in California and Arizona have pledged to follow similar standards.

Proponents of the new standard, which include some trade organizations that represent large-scale greens growers, say it will improve food safety and safeguard the reputation of the U.S. leafy greens industry. But environmentalists fear the standard will lead to a loss of biodiversity around farms and do little to improve food safety. And many small farmers believe the standard is a Trojan horse designed to raise the cost of doing business for small growers and diminish small-scale competitiveness in the marketplace.

The events that have led to the proposed rules have the feel of a medical suspense-thriller movie.

Tracking an E.coli outbreak

Scientists traced the outbreak back to a single farm in California on leased land owned by a feedlot ranch; the spinach was sold organically but marketed as conventionally-grown. The scientists found an exact genetic match of the E. coli strain in cow feces a mile from the farm, but they still don’t know how the organism traveled the mile to the spinach field. One theory is the organism came on the feet of some wild pigs that were seen foraging in the field.

In response to the crisis, greens growers in California formulated the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a voluntary accord with a series of measures designed to minimize the risk of future E. coli outbreaks. The agreement, which was created and managed by a board of greens industry stakeholders, targets wholesalers who buy leafy greens for distribution.

The distributors ask the farmers they buy from to follow the agreement’s agricultural guidelines. These guidelines include testing irrigation water, maintaining a buffer from wildlife or farm animals, and examining fields for feces on the day of harvest. The farms that participate must maintain records of these practices, and they are regularly audited.

Shortly after distributors signed onto the California agreement, most Arizona distributors agreed to a similar state pact. The two states represent more than 90 percent of the market share for greens.

While some western growers signed on readily, there also was resistance, said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement.

“There was confusion at the time and a lot of pressure on everyone,” said Horsfall.

But the two agreements caught on, and some 98 percent of leafy greens growers in the two states follow the guidelines, he said. Since then, produce trade organizations across the country have been inquiring about adapting the agreement for their own needs, he said.

USDA hearings

In 2009, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA began conducting hearings seeking public comment about the creation of a national voluntary standard for greens distributors across the nation. The public comment period, which elicited some 2100 replies, ended this July. No one yet knows when the USDA will issue its final draft of the agreement; an USDA official replied that, as of yet, there is no timeline to complete the process.

From the outset, advocates for organic growers and small-scale agriculture, including the interstate council of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), have been unhappy with the push for a national agreement. They fear the standards will penalize small farmers and lead to a less healthy food system.

One of the proposed standards that has drawn the most ire would require farmers to maintain a buffer zone between their crops and wildlife or feeding lots. Advocates of the agreement say the provision will prevent animal feces from contaminating crops, but environmental groups complain that in practice it has meant the destruction of critical wildlife habitats that surround farms and the loss of beneficial insects needed for organic farming.

Horsfall said the provision isn’t designed to create a sterile zone around a farm, but, he said, California farmers are being aggressive about creating boundaries from wildlife.

“There are a lot of fences going up, there’s no question about it,” Horsfall said.

Small farmers worry they won’t have a voice

Many of the provisions in the agreement are common-sense food safety practices, said Jack Kittredge, executive director for NOFA Massachusetts. But Kittredge fears small farmers won’t have enough of a voice in shaping the standards; the board to oversee the agreement would allow a few seats out of 24 for organic farmers and small farming advocates. This could lead to standards only industrial agriculture can meet, he said.

For example, the buffer zone requirement would exclude most northeast farmers, who only have space for large gardens, Kittredge said. Not being able to conform to the agreement’s standards could shut small farmers out of the retail marketplace, he said.

“It’s one more nail in the coffin of small-scale agriculture,” said Kittredge. “Small farms, because of the way they do business, should be held to different standards.”

The system is voluntary, but some organic growers fear it will become the de facto rule. Most northeast growers don’t sell to large distributors who would require such an agreement, speculates Dave Rogers, policy analyst for NOFA Vermont. But, he fears, insurance companies for the distributors may make signing onto the agreement a requirement, and distributors who don’t sign onto the agreement might face much higher premiums.

“While it’s voluntary in practice, it becomes something that everybody’s driven to adopt,” said Roberts.

And many agricultural analysts find it strange that the marketing arm of the USDA is overseeing a food safety program. The agency’s inspection office does oversee meat and dairy inspections, but the FDA often handles inspections of other aspects of food safety. The Cornucopia Institute is suing the USDA for enacting similar food safety standards for almonds through its marketing branch.

The wrong message

Coupling food safety with marketing can send the wrong message to the food industry, said NOFA New York president Jamie Edelstein in her testimony on the proposed regulations in Syracuse.

“Food safety should not be a marketing attribute. All food sold to the public should be safe,” Edelstein said.

Proponents of a national marketing standard contend the system is an easy and necessary measure to restore and maintain trust in the greens industry. The standards can be adapted to fit regions and are designed to change over time as new knowledge of E. coli infection becomes available, said Horsfall. Many organic farmers have been able to meet the requirements of the agreement in California; the main change is in the record-keeping, he said.

“The biggest thing they had to get their heads around was documentation,” Horsfall said.

And increased food safety is worth the added cost and effort, Fink-Weber said. She also understands the concern among environmentalists about habitat loss, but she said there are other considerations.

“Do you want the wildlife buffer or do you want the E. coli?” she asked.

More greens in fewer hands

But some believe creating standards that may concentrate the greens industry into fewer hands could make food safety worse. Cornucopia Institute co-founder Mark Kastel said the E. coli outbreak of 2006 was so far-reaching because the contaminated spinach from one farm was packaged at a large processing facility. Funneling more spinach into less packaging facilities could make the risk of an outbreak even worse, he said.

Complicating the argument over the agreement is confusion over how E. coli is spread; often scientists can’t determine the exact source of an outbreak or how food safety protocol broke down to cause the problem. A recent E. coli outbreak in Germany found food safety officials helpless for weeks to determine the food source of the pathogen.

Also, no study has yet been done to prove the agreement has led to increased food safety in California and Arizona, Horsfall said. And there’s no guarantee the final standards will be acceptable to trade organizations across the country, Fink Weber said.

“It’s a long process; it may take a year or two,” she said. “It may be something we can’t live with, either.”

Adding to the confusion, the USDA may have to compete within the government to regulate leafy greens. The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama in January, mandates the FDA to draw up new food safety regulations for many foods, including leafy greens. No one yet knows who will ultimately regulate the leafy greens industry, or when the final regulations will come out.

The process is frustrating enough that some small-scale farmers like Trubitt are trying to maintain mental distance from it. Trubitt finds it dumbfounding that large-scale greens producers must pledge to do what any good farmer would do anyway to maintain food safety.

“I find the whole thing annoying,” Trubitt said. “It’s just common sense. You have to write it down and say it out loud?”

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