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Leafy green growers, shippers face three strikes rule

Apr 11, 2007 | Santa Cruz Sentinel It's three strikes or they're out for growers, shippers or handlers who violate food safety standards designed to prevent future E. coli outbreaks.

The new policy is expected to be passed later this month in Sacramento by the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Advisory Board, set up by the industry earlier this year.

The stringent policy was outlined Tuesday before hundreds of growers and handlers who gathered at the Salinas Community Center.

The three-strikes policy is the backbone to the 150-page agreement, intended to safeguard against another E. coli outbreak like the one that killed three people late last summer and sickened more than 200 others across the country.

So far, hundreds of handlers, growers and shippers, an estimated 99 percent of the industry, have signed on to the agreement, and ultimately they will be awarded a "seal of approval" if they follow its chief guidelines.

John Dyer, chief counsel for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the regulatory agency overseeing the agreement, said three violations by a grower, shipper or handler will result in the loss of the seal of approval for one year.

Some of the safety precautions include testing the water supply monthly for E. coli bacteria, proving there is an adequate trace-back system for the produce and doing their best to keep animals off farmland.

Wild pigs, deer, goats, cattle and sheep are some of the animals believed to be potential carriers of the deadly strain of E. coli. The bacteria in last summer's case was traced to a ranch in San Benito County by state and federal health officials.
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"This is still a work in progress," said Joe Pezzini, chairman of the advisory board, which makes recommendations to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. "We can keep adding on to it as we go and as new science comes available"

The cost of enforcing the agreement is estimated at $4.3 million annually, an expense that will be paid for by those who have signed the agreement through a 2-cent tax per carton of produce.

"This is the beginning," said John Savage, a production supervisor for Dynasty Farms, a spinach grower in Salinas. "We'd better get on board or we could face what happened last summer again. The bottom line is that our industry has a black eye and we've got to fix it"

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