In just three years since the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak from bagged baby spinach, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) is now policing over 110 companies that together ship and sell 99 percent of the Golden State’s fresh produce to consumers.

In its annual report for the period ending in 2009, the LGMA reports it is conducting more audits and handing out more citations in its quest for food safety and to regain the trust of the consumer.

What emerged in California after a series of fresh produce outbreaks is a voluntary agreement among produce handlers that allows for mandatory government audits that are both random and unannounced.  California Department of Food and Agriculture inspectors who are trained and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conduct the audits.

“Farmers, shippers and processors have demonstrated their willingness to follow a set of food safety practices by signing onto the LGMA,” Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer, wrote in the annual report.  “Once a company joins LGMA, it becomes mandatory for that member company to sell and ship product only from farmers who comply with the LGMA accepted food safety practices.”

The industry-organized LGMA got its start in April 2007, and California inspectors began audits the following July.  The annual report shows inspectors are now conducting more audits and handing out more citations.

For the 12-month period ending in 2009, the LGMA produced 641 audits and 1,068 citations.    The number of audits was up one-third and the number of citations almost doubled from the first year.

One “flagrant” violation occurred when an unnamed LMGA member company falsified documents during harvest.  That company was decertified for six months.   While decertified, the company was prohibited from using the LGMA Service Mark, and faced loss of buyers.

After the six-month period was up, the company took all required corrective actions and was subjected to audits for re-certification.

One-third of the 36 major deviation findings were due to incomplete compliance plans and documentation, six involved animal encroachment, two where debris was found near fields, one case involving water draining near the edge of field, and another where animal feces were found in a field prior to harvest.

Worker activities and inadequate sanitary facilities are also among the major deviations cited.

Growers cited for problems in their fields during harvest are now buffering those areas and destroying any product that might be contaminated.
Citations in the past year were issued for general requirements, environmental assessment, water use, soil amendments, worker practices, field observations, and field sanitation.

The LGMA also has strengthened its food safety practices to require that wastewater from animals be kept away from irrigation water for leafy greens.  It says that change was based on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) final report on the 2006 spinach outbreak.

The success California growers have had with the LGMA has not gone unnoticed. An Arizona Leafy Green Marketing Agreement is now underway for fresh produce growers in the Southwest.   And, there is interest in a national agreement for all leafy greens produced in the United States.

In addition to spinach and lettuce, leafy greens include arugula, chard, escarole, cabbage, endive, kale, and spring mix.

The LGMA report says state inspectors in the past year reviewed 117,944 “checkpoints” in the 641 audits.

The LGMA is funded by member assessments.  It raised almost $4 million by the end of its fiscal year, and had program expenses of  $2.6 million.  It reports 71 percent of its spending goes for audits and enforcement.  Its other expenses are for communications and administration.