(Jan. 16, 9:38 a.m.) In a move that elevated the anxiety level among grower-shippers, Darrell Steinberg, the new president pro-tem of the California state Senate, overhauled the body’s agriculture committee.

The panel is now known as the Food and Agriculture Committee, and the new chairman is Dean Florez, Steinberg revealed at a news conference Jan. 13. Several environmental groups were represented at the news conference, during which Steinberg said the changes would usher in a new era in California agriculture policy.

“I was somewhat surprised at the manner in which the announcement was structured,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter. “There was no outreach to any agriculture representative or group.”

Florez said his priorities will include a review of the leafy green industry and its efforts to minimize the risk of E. coli contamination.

“If he says it’s time to revisit the leafy greens agreement, I would challenge that statement,” said Jim Bogart, president and general counsel for the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Salinas. “The California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, the Center for Produce Safety and other steps we have taken indicate precisely the industry is not standing still.”

Florez, a native of the San Joaquin Valley, has often been at odds with growers’ interests and even with other members of the legislature, including a public feud with Nicole Parra, a fellow Democrat, who chaired the assembly agriculture committee until she was termed out last year.

“With Ms. Parra as chair, the agriculture committee was pretty much the voice of reason in using scientific data and information in giving the leafy greens initiative a chance to succeed,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, Fresno.

The restructured committee will put more emphasis on food safety and environmental issues, Steinberg said. The changes in the senate committee, coupled with Parra’s departure, make for an uncertain future, according to some grower-shippers.

“My concern is that decisions, laws, regulations, what have you may be based on emotion rather than on sound science, solid data and good facts,” Bogart said.

Nelsen said he was surprised by the appointment of Florez to the chairmanship.

“We’ve worked with Dean on several issues — some positive and some negative,” he said. “We look forward to working with him in the future.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation will work with the Senate Committee on Food and Agriculture to insure food security for everyone, Doug Mosebar, the group’s president, said in a written statement.

“By enhancing its scope of work, the Senate Committee on Food and Agriculture is recognizing the contributions that California family farmers and ranchers make in assuring food security for all,” he said in the statement.

The committee’s former chairman, Republican Abel Maldonado, remains on the panel. He has recently campaigned for the suspension of per-diem payments to legislators until the state comes to terms with a projected $41 billion deficit expected by the end of fiscal 2009. His demotion and the committee changes, he charged, were in retribution for his per-diem campaign.

“Given his past record and association with agriculture, the selection of Sen. Florez by the president pro-tem is perplexing at best,” Bedwell said. “The committee must realize where we are in terms of being one of the most regulated agriculture industries in the world.”