hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Fear, safety and leafy greens

Small producers skeptical of push for national rules


Contributing writer

As a veteran grower of leafy green vegetables, Ted Dobson has a hard time seeing the need for a new food-safety regimen being pushed by the federal government.

For nearly three decades, Dobson has been producing lettuce, salad mixes and other greens for farmers markets, supermarkets and restaurants, both in the Berkshires and in Boston and New York.

The operation at Dobson’s Equinox Farm has some unconventional touches. His workers, for example, wash the greens in a wooden trough and spin them dry in a converted washing machine.

But from the beginning, cleanliness and safety have been a high priority. He was one of the first in the region to market ready-to-eat salad mixes, so he says he had to make sure from the beginning that the greens were pathogen-free.

“I was telling people they could eat the mix right off the bat,” Dobson said.

After some deadly E. coli outbreaks that have been traced to large-scale greens producers in recent years, Dobson has been investing in improvements – like a new washing house with concrete floors – that he knows will make his customers feel more secure.

Still, his produce has never been implicated in any outbreak of illness.

“If I had a problem with the way I’ve been doing things, I would have heard about it in the last 30 years,” Dobson said.

Dobson and other small-scale producers of leafy greens are watching warily as the federal government, spurred by a 2006 E. coli outbreak involving spinach, pushes a new marketing agreement that would set new safety rules for growers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been formulating the new rules for the past two years. Based on a system set up in California, the national rules would require distributors who buy greens to do so only from farmers who implement standard operating procedures to minimize the possibility of animal fecal contamination.

In theory the agreement is voluntary, but all large-scale farms in California and Arizona have signed on.

Proponents of the new standard, including some trade organizations that represent large-scale greens growers, say the new standard will improve food safety and safeguard the reputation of the U.S. leafy greens industry.

But opponents fear the standard will lead to a loss of biodiversity around farms and do little to improve food safety.

In addition, many small farmers like Dobson suspect the standard is a Trojan horse designed to raise the cost of doing business for small growers and diminish their competiveness in the marketplace.

“The big grower would love to punish the smaller farm” with more stringent rules, Dobson said.

A contagion of fear?

The events that led to the proposed new rules have the feel of a suspense movie.

In September 2006, a virulent strain of E. coli, eventually traced to a single spinach farm in California, killed three people and sickened 199 in 26 states. Roughly half of those who contracted the strain had to be hospitalized -- twice the average hospitalization rate for E. coli outbreaks -- and some who survived suffered kidney failure.

Health officials still aren’t sure exactly how the E. coli got into the spinach, but the spinach plants were infected systemically from the roots; washing the leaves did no good.

The California farm that was the source of the outbreak operated on leased land owned by a feedlot ranch. 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.

While the effort to find the source of the 2006 outbreak was under way, federal regulators urged consumers not to eat any bagged fresh spinach. Three months later, another E. coli outbreak, likely from green onions, added to an air of panic about contaminated produce.

Many large-scale spinach growers wound up losing most of their sales that year. The greens industry took a $100 million hit, said Wendy Fink-Weber, a spokeswoman for the Western Growers Association.

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

But that’s not how advocates of small-scale and organic agriculture remember it.

Mark Kastel, director of the Organic Integrity Project at the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute, says the demand for locally grown organic spinach went through the roof during the 2006 scare, because consumers wanted the ability to trace their spinach back to the grower.

That was the experience of Steven Trubitt, co-owner of the 5-acre Truelove Farm in North Bennington, Vt. He remembers that sales of spinach were strong at local farmers markets during the outbreak, because customers felt they could trust local producers at a time when the national food distribution system was suspect.

“It was fantastic for our business,” Trubitt recalled. “They all came to us.”

California model

In response to the 2006 crisis, growers in California formulated the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, a voluntary accord with a series of measures designed to minimize the risk of future E. coli outbreaks.

The agreement, created and managed by a board of industry stakeholders, focuses on 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. Participating farms 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 pact. The two states produce more than 90 percent of the leafy green vegetables sold nationally.

Although some western growers signed on readily, there also was some resistance, said Scott Horsfall, chief executive of the organization that oversees the pact.

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

But the two agreements caught on, and some 98 percent of leafy greens growers in the two states now 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.

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. The public comment period, which elicited some 2,100 responses, ended in July.

No one knows when the USDA will issue its final draft of the proposed standard; a USDA official said last month that there is no timeline to complete the process.

Industrial-scale bias?

From the outset, though, advocates say small-scale and organic growers have been unhappy with the push for national standards. They fear the standards will penalize small farmers and actually lead to a less healthy system of food production.

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. Proponents 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 intended to create sterile zones around farms. But he acknowledged that, based on the guidelines already in place in California, farmers there are being aggressive about creating boundaries from wildlife.

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

Many of the provisions in the agreement are common-sense food safety practices, said Jack Kittredge, executive director for the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

But Kittredge said he fears small farmers won’t have enough of a voice in shaping the standards. The 24-member board that would oversee the national marketing agreement would include only a few representatives of organic and small-scale farmers. The result, Kittredge said, could be standards that only industrial-scale growers would be able to meet.

As currently proposed, for example, the requirement for a buffer zone from wildlife would be prohibitive for most Massachusetts farmers, who typically don’t own enough land to provide such buffers, 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,” Kittredge said. “Small farms, because of the way they do business, should be held to different standards.”

Although the agreement is supposed to be voluntary, 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, said Dave Rogers, a policy analyst for Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.

But if the standard goes national, he said, insurance companies might pressure even smaller distributors to sign on to the agreement or face much higher premiums.

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

Mixing regulation, marketing

Several observers said they find it strange that the marketing arm of the USDA is overseeing what amounts to a food safety program. The agency’s inspection office does oversee meat and dairy inspections, but it’s the Food and Drug Administration that generally handles most food-safety matters.

The Cornucopia Institute has gone to court to challenge the USDA’s use of its marketing branch to adopt similar food safety standards for almonds.

Jamie Edelstein, president of the New York branch of NOFA, testified against the USDA’s leafy-greens proposal at a hearing in Syracuse, arguing that coupling food safety with marketing can send the wrong message to the food industry.

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

Proponents of a national marketing standard say the proposal is an easy and necessary effort to restore and maintain the public’s trust in the greens industry.

Horsfall, for example, said the standards can be adapted to fit different regions of the country and are designed to change over time as new knowledge of E. coli infection becomes available. 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.

Fink-Weber, of the Western Growers Association, insisted that increased food safety is worth the added cost and effort. She said she understands the concern among environmentalists about habitat loss, for example, but that there are other considerations.

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

But some say creating standards that may concentrate the greens industry into fewer hands could make food safety worse.

Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute said the reason the E. coli outbreak of 2006 was so far-reaching was that contaminated spinach from one farm was packaged at a large processing facility, where it was mixed with spinach from many other sources. Rules that lead to even more consolidation of the distribution system will just make the risk of an outbreak even worse, he said.

Known unknowns

Complicating the debate 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, for example, left food safety officials helpless for weeks as they tried to determine which food was the source of the pathogen.

In addition, no study has been done so far to show whether the new policies in California and Arizona have led to increased food safety.

There’s also no guarantee the final standards will be acceptable to trade organizations across the country, Fink-Weber said.

The USDA also may have to compete with the FDA to regulate leafy greens. The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama in January, requires the FDA to draw up new food safety regulations for many foods, including leafy greens. So no one knows for certain who will ultimately regulate the leafy greens industry, or when the final regulations will come out.

All of which might explain why Dobson tries to maintain a deliberate indifference to the regulatory process. He’s aware of what’s happening, he said, but he’s hoping his connection with customers and his record of safety will be enough to allow him to keep selling his greens.

Dobson so far has resisted other third-party certification programs – including organic certification, although he says he raises his greens naturally and without pesticides.

At the same time, he said he has been in the industry long enough to know that regulation is like a force of nature: hard to predict and tough to fight against.

“I don’t even want to know,” Dobson said. “If I had to be certified, I would.”

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