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For fresh produce industry, a summer of apprehension

Aaaaaah …. summer is here. Time for juicy sweet watermelons, soft fresh, ripe peaches, crisp grapes, deep purple plums, and bright, healthy summer salads.

Sure, those items are in supermarket produce departments year-round these days, but there's something about summer that makes fresh produce taste just a little better — fresh produce from American farms.

Farmers and fresh produce packers and shippers welcome summer, but this year there is a bit of apprehension in the air. In September, the fresh produce industry will mark the first anniversary of the now-infamous E. coli O157:H7 spinach outbreak that made 205 people ill and was responsible for three deaths.

There have been food safety issues in the past, but none — except perhaps the Alar on apples fiasco in the late 1980s — that has had the impact on agriculture like the E. coli spinach crisis last fall.

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, and Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League (CG&TFL), are hopeful this summer will pass without another major food safety crisis, but admit they're nervous.

Stenzel says a repeat of the spinach crisis could be devastating.

The fallout lingers: spinach sales are down 30 percent to 40 percent from a year ago, and all bagged salad sales are down 5 percent to 7 percent for the same period.

At the CG&TFL annual meeting, Stenzel said tree fruit and grape growers should not lull themselves into complacency just because they are “different” from spinach/leafy green producers. The food safety issue has never been more critical across all segments of the fresh product industry, he says.

“The number one reason why food safety matters, and is the most critical challenge we face today, is because of the health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables for our country.”

Although the spinach crisis came down to basically one harvest shift for product from one 50-acre field, the crisis took on gigantic proportions in the media because of what he calls “the CSI factor,” with the media looking anywhere and everywhere for culprits.

Terrorism and other events in the world also magnified the food safety issue with the spinach E. coli outbreak.

It became a “man bites dog” story, with the media proclaiming, “Oh my gosh, produce can make you sick.”

Stenzel calls it the tipping point of the food safety issue that will force the industry once again to change and enhance the culture of food safety in farming as never before. It's a change everyone must embrace for the benefit and protection of all fresh produce growers and processors, he says.

Growers must adhere to good management practices to avoid contamination, and processors must adhere to good manufacturing practices.

“All pressures are at hand,” from regulators to retailers to consumers, to make America's food supply even safer, Stenzel says.

Right now, there is no nationwide clamor for new, draconian food safety regulations, but any future major outbreaks like the spinach crisis could send agriculture down a slippery slope to major, mandated regulations.

While the media sensationalized the spinach crisis, consumers didn't “freak out” as in the Alar/apple crisis, but they now are likely more concerned about the safety of the food they eat than before the spinach crisis. The majority remain confident of the safety of their food supply, but another incident could significantly erode that confidence, Stenzel says.

He praised Western Growers and other grower groups and California Department of Food and Agriculture for adopting new industry-formulated food safety standards backed by a marketing order. “It reflects on an industry showing that it is willing to take whatever actions necessary to protect our food supply.”

However, he said, after sitting before a Wisconsin legislative hearing, he realized that consumers really don't want the industry to regulate itself.

“The family of the Wisconsin woman who died was in the audience, and they did not want me to write the regulations,” Stenzel said.

He says United Fresh Produce “applauds the WG/CDFA initiative and has provided scientific and technical resources” in developing the California leafy greens industry standards now being implemented.

He calls this marketing order approach “a significant step forward, not just for California, but nationally.”

But, Stenzel says, consumers want the Food and Drug Administration to be solely responsible for the safety of America's food supply.

United Fresh Produce is “committed to work toward consistent, mandatory produce safety standards at the federal level, to provide the greatest possible assurance to the public, and an equitable regulatory framework for produce, regardless of production region, both within the United States and for imports outside,” he says.

As the political and regulatory issues unfold in the wake of the 2006 spinach crisis, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry will be crossing their fingers that American consumers will enjoy a bountiful summer of fresh fruits and vegetables — and not a summer of discontent from another food safety crisis.

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