Clean greens: Spinach industry checks for washed hands

It takes a lot of dirty boots to make sure the lettuce leaves are clean. This year in spinach, lettuce and kale fields throughout California and Arizona, state inspectors hired by the leafy greens industry are auditing fields to make sure pickers are washing hands and rinsing lettuce and spinach leaves carefully, and keeping a lookout for rodents. The goal of the Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement: to prevent a messy, sickening and crushingly expensive recall like the one that the spinach industry endured in 2006, with the outbreak of a harmful strain of Escherichia coli, or any of the salmonella-related recalls of 2009 (peanuts, pistachios, and pepper, oh my!).

Why is the industry monitoring its own safety? It's certainly not because the FDA or USDA is calling for more vigilance, or threatening penalties. It's not because they want more oversight (in fact, for decades now, the industry has been lobbying against it). It's because, frankly: the industry is afraid the U.S. consumer can't take much more and will realize how extraordinarily easy it is to grow lettuce.

With consumers flooding to seed catalogs and garden stores, debit cards in hand, carting off vegetable seeds to grow in their garden, they're sure to happen first upon lettuce, spinach and kale seeds, which are both cheap and plentiful (a packet costing $2 to $3 usually contains a few hundred seeds). They are offered to beginning gardeners because they are so easy to grow (you just sprinkle 'em on the ground and wait). One more industry-wide recall, and even the least skilled gardening consumer is sure to ask himself, why risk it? I know if I wash my hands before picking!

As several versions of food safety legislation are now before Congress, it's certain that, eventually, the Federal government will step in with some regulations -- but likely not for at least a year. Industry groups are moving forward alone, helped by 1930s-era laws allowing them to create "marketing agreements" or "marketing orders," giving the industry the power to create regulations that are then enforced by government auditors.

Once Dole and Fresh Express agreed to participate in the voluntary leafy greens program, in which the industry pays the state of California $1 million to provide its inspection services (20% are unannounced), more than 95% of spinach and lettuce growers in the state joined the marketing agreement.

Is a voluntary "marketing agreement" enough to protect consumers? It's hard to say; consumer activist groups say "no," and the federal government says it's interested in "setting the right standards and holding industry to it" with new regulations and more government inspectors (but is silent on specfics like deadlines for new rules, and the size of any program's budget). As for me, I'm growing my own lettuce, and washing my own hands, and I'll be sure to tell Chief Rodent Inspector Kitty that she's working doubletime from now 'til October.

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