Feb 18, 2010
Ohio Wants a Say in Produce Safety Plan

Bob Jones hoped that this food safety thing would have been cleared up by now, but it’s more confusing than ever.

Produce growers today have to live up to a multiplicity of standards to keep consumers from getting sick – or no standards at all, depending on who their buyers are. Industry groups are pushing food safety plans. Several bills are moving through Congress. FDA and USDA are developing rules. Even the White House has a food safety group. Everybody involved seems to realize that some sort of national, uniform produce safety standards are on the horizon, but nobody knows exactly when they will arrive – or exactly what they will look like.

One thing is certain, however. Every outbreak and health scare – whether it’s in spinach or something else – draws more attention to the produce industry and puts more pressure on the federal government to do something – even if that something is the wrong thing.

Jones, who runs The Chef’s Garden farm with his family in Huron, Ohio, knows that this is a time of transition for the produce industry when it comes to food safety. Scary as that might be, it’s also a time of opportunity. That’s why he and other members of the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association (OPGMA) are working hard to make sure their voices are heard in the debate. It’s now or never.

“We decided just reacting wasn’t good enough for us,” he said. “If we wait until the dust settles, we’ll be left behind.”

Jones spoke during an educational session in January, part of OPGMA’s annual conference in Sandusky, Ohio. He recapped the association’s produce safety efforts up until now.

Last fall, OPGMA sent an e-mail to its members, urging them not to sign on to the proposed National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (NLGMA) and encouraging them to participate in the creation of an alternative agreement, one tailored to Ohio growers. Within 12 hours of sending that e-mail, OPGMA was getting calls from grower groups in other states, asking if they could join the Ohio effort, Jones said.

Ohio’s resistance, and the support it gained from other states, threw the prospects of a national agreement into upheaval and made the “federal folks” uncomfortable, he said.

California standards

So, just what was the problem with NLGMA? And how does a leafy greens agreement affect other produce?

According to OPGMA’s Web site, NLGMA “will require Ohio produce growers to meet California-style food safety standards. That means Ohio growers would be forced to adhere to growing policies and practices developed for and by California growers!”

And it wouldn’t affect just leafy greens growers.

“It is likely that these food safety standards will extend beyond leafy greens to tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, root vegetables and berries, as has happened with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement,” according to the Web site.

NLGMA is based on the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a voluntary food safety plan created after the spinach E. coli crisis of 2006. Creating CLGMA was the right thing for California’s large leafy greens growers to do at the time, but thousands of small farms in that state have refused to sign it because they feel it puts them at a financial disadvantage, said Karl Kolb, president of High Sierra Group, a food safety advisory company based in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

According to a report released last fall by the University of California’s Small Farm Program, seasonal food safety costs for participating California growers more than doubled after they implemented CLGMA standards, increasing from a mean of $24.04 per acre in 2006 to $54.63 per acre in 2007.

It’s easier for larger farms to absorb the costs associated with such a food safety plan, Kolb said. That gives big California growers an advantage over smaller growers who can’t afford to join CLGMA, because buyers – seeking to mollify their own customers – prefer to purchase leafy greens from a farm that is part of the large-scale safety effort.

If NLGMA becomes the national guideline – not just for leafy greens but for all produce – the same thing will happen on a national scale. Hundreds of thousands of small farms will be out in the cold – including almost every grower in Ohio, Kolb said.

According to OPGMA’s Web site, NLGMA standards could be especially tough on Ohio’s Amish, Mennonite and muck farmers.

Ohio standards

Kolb was hired last year to help develop produce safety standards tailored to Ohio-style farming. After holding several meetings with industry players, he and OPGMA officials started developing an alternative to NLGMA’s one-size-fits-all approach. They call it the Ohio Fresh Produce Marketing Agreement.

The Ohio agreement seeks to keep produce safety rules as simple and realistic as possible, while respecting different farming styles and the peculiarities of different crops.

“Food safety really is just good old common sense,” Kolb said.

The agreement still has a long way to go before it’s finished. Whatever Ohio comes up with, it has to dovetail with USDA and FDA expectations – and at this point, the federal agencies don’t seem to know what they want. Expect to look at a completed document in about a year, Jones told the assembled growers.

Creating produce safety guidelines is going to be a slow, frustrating process, he said, but the finished product could have a big influence on the rest of the country – which could pay dividends for Ohio when the dust settles.

“Quite a few folks want to jump in on this,” Kolb said. “(Ohio) could be the next growing region to supply the country with food.”

A public meeting about FDA’s proposed safety rules is scheduled for March 11 in Columbus, Ohio. For more information, call Caroline Hubbard at 202-687-2976.

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