TUSCON - In 2006, an E. coli outbreak in California Spinach rocked the fresh produce industry. Nearly 200 people across the country got sick. Three died. Farmers in Arizona were paying close attention. Arizona, along with California, produces almost all of the nation’s leafy greens and so they both got to work developing a more stringent approach to food safety. For growers in southern Arizona, it’s an ever-evolving effort to protect your food from the field to the plate.
A crew of about 20 workers comes in from the field to take a break from harvesting and packing hearts of romaine on a farm in Yuma, Arizona. People take turns washing their hands at sinks connected to portable restrooms. But here’s a surprising thing, before the E. Coli outbreak, hand washing wasn’t the norm. This is according to Val Sierra, a Food Safety Specialist for Amigo Farms.
“If they did wash their hands, a lot of people would just wet them, wouldn’t use soap, probably dry them on their clothes,” he said.
Today there are signs posted in English and Spanish explaining the step-by-step procedure for proper hand washing.
“And you have to follow each step correctly in order to go back into the field," Sierra said. "If not, you’re not allowed."
In addition to this pretty basic policy, Arizona and California came up with a slew of other joint strategies under the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a food safety initiative. Some guidelines of the program include testing and recording levels of potential contaminants in the farm's water and soil.
Participation in the program is voluntary, but once you’re in, full compliance is enforced by regular state audits. The program works side by side with researchers who are keeping up on the latest in food-safety science.
Kurt Nolte is the Director of the Yuma Agricultural Center with the University of Arizona. He said this facility was the first to discover that drip irrigation, as opposed to using a sprinkler system, reduces the risk of microbial contamination such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.
That’s because this method wets the roots and keeps the leaves drier. But Nolte said even with all the science in the world, the environment that crops are grown in is one of the things that can’t be totally controlled.
“And so one of the guidelines is trying to deal with the unknown and very precarious situation of animal intrusion, whether domestic or wild animals,” he said.
Nolte said they can’t really eliminate risk, but they can address prevention.
“We’re trying to understand why produce gets contaminated and, once we find those factors, we can come up with solutions to minimize the catastrophic things that have happened in our industry," he said.
Nolte said the program is working. He said since 2010 some 3 billion servings of raw product has been eaten out of the Yuma area alone, without a significant incidence of food safety for the public. He said right now they are looking at differeant ways to sanitize harvest equipment.
The federal government is paying attention to that apparent success as it prepares the first national rules on produce safety under the Food Safety Modernization Act. Unlike the Leafy Greens initiative, these rules will be compulsory and many small farmers are worried about just how much it will cost them.
Larry Park has a 5-acre farm near Tucson. He regularly sells his produce at farmer’s markets.
“If it comes down to where it’s going to cost me too much to upgrade all the facilities, to pass their inspections, for me to harvest one day and sell the next, then it won’t be worth it to me,” Park said.
More than half of Arizona farms are small, just 9 acres or less, but may still be subject to the federal regulations depending on their annual produce sale. This frustrates Park, who said the E. coli outbreak was a result of practices by corporate farms, not small farmers like him.
Samir Assar with the Food and Drug Administration said they will try to minimize the costs as much as possible. Several of the federal provisions will be less stringent than the Leafy Greens programs in Arizona and California. Assar said the FDA is looking to implement resources to help bring people into compliance.
“It’s to the benefit of the entire produce industry and to consumers that folks are implementing good food-safety practices that are aimed at preventing problems from occurring,” he said.
He emphasized addressing a problem after it’s occurred, is much more costly. This is a truth that many big produce suppliers have learned the hard way.