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CU comments on Proposed California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement

California Department of Food and Agriculture
Public Hearing to Consider the Implementation of the Proposed California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement
Monterey, California
January 12, 2007

Good morning. My name is Elisa Odabashian. I am the West Coast Director of Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, with 4 million subscribers, and Consumer Reports Online, with more than 2.5 million subscribers. We appreciate today’s opportunity to comment on the proposal to create a marketing agreement for leafy greens, under the California Marketing Act, that will require industry participants to adhere to Best Practices for insuring the safety of America’s salad bowl.
The recent deadly E. coli contamination of spinach is part of a longer history of contaminated leafy green products in California. According to the US Food and Drug Administration there have been twenty documented incidents in the last ten years of California leafy greens contaminated with disease-causing organisms.
We applaud the industry’s concern with improving its safety practices, which led to this proposal for a marketing agreement. The broad consumption of leafy greens is essential to the health of consumers, both to insure proper nutrition and to help fight the current epidemic of obesity in the United States. However, we see three serious drawbacks to the oversight mechanism being proposed here today.
First, there’s a process problem. We are seriously concerned that the industry appears to intend to create its Best Practices standards behind closed doors, that it will be overseen by a Board made up almost exclusively of industry representatives, and that enforcement will amount to a simple rubber stamp by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Industry self-regulation seldom protects consumers and often provides industry with cover when contamination occurs.
Under state and federal law, standards are almost always put forward for Notice and Comment, so that the entire public has an opportunity to give input. A government agency is required to consider all comments received. This has the beneficial effect of getting input from a wide range of sources and experts, some of whom may have been previously unknown to the drafters of the standard. There should be a public opportunity for Notice and Comment before these Best Practices standards are adopted.
Our second concern is that, since participation is voluntary, the marketing agreement does not cover all leafy green growers and processors. Consumers cannot, therefore, be assured that all leafy greens that reach the marketplace will be as safe as possible. Experts agree that government standards and enforcement of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) for farms and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs for processors are essential to maintaining the safety of leafy greens, and thereby consumer confidence and the financial health of the industry. If not all leafy greens in the marketplace are subject to these Best Practices, the door remains open for contaminated produce to reach consumers, with all the attendant negative health effects and negative publicity that that incurs.
Finally, we are concerned that the marketing order proposes use of a certification mark to convey to consumers that leafy green products from those participating farms and processors are subject to Best Practices. This approach turns safety into value added in the marketplace. Government authorities must guarantee the highest level of food safety to consumers—it should not be something that consumers must search out and possibly pay extra for. Furthermore, if romaine lettuce, for example, is implicated in a future E. coli contamination incident, many consumers will not stop to ask whether produce has a safety seal—they will simply stop buying all leafy greens for a period of time.
In conclusion, while this marketing agreement may bring some improvement in leafy green safety, because of the insular, exclusive way in which these standards are being created, and more importantly, because this process does not cover all leafy green growers and processors in California, we believe that this agreement will not provide the industry with the extremely high standard of safety that it must achieve to keep and expand its market. We are also deeply concerned about beginning to view safety as something that can be used as a marketing tool, and we oppose the use of a certification mark that suggests an added level of safety on some leafy green products and not on others.
An appropriate and necessary approach to the problem would be for the CDFA to be given the mandate to require and enforce GAPs on farms and HACCP for processing facilities. If this requires additional authority, budget and staff to do so, the California legislature should provide them to the CDFA during this legislative session.