Nothing novel to the fresh produce industry, food safety issues ranked No. 1 in The Packer’s 2007 and 2008 lists of top news events, and continuing food safety reform efforts ranked as the second-most important story of 2009, paling in comparison only to the recession’s effects.

#2 story of 2009: National food safety standards inch forward

Produce Pulse survey respondents, representatives from all areas of the fresh produce supply chain, in November agreed the movement toward reaching an agreement on national application of food safety guidelines should dominate 2010.

Forty percent listed national food safety reform taking shape and beginning implementation as their prediction to be the top news story in 2010.

The push for national food safety guidelines and the proposed national marketing agreement for leafy greens — while having more bark than bite in 2009 — secured 47% of the Produce Pulse answers to the question, “Which was the biggest fresh produce industry trend news in 2009?”

While 2009 brought a lot more discussion of that than action, it’s apparent that nationalization of food safety standards is inevitable, and produce industry leaders are resigned to that, if not excited by it.

When the Senate Health Committee passed its food safety bill on Nov. 18, the fresh produce industry came one step closer to realizing a fix to a problem that exacerbated the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak erroneously linked to tomatoes.

The Senate’s bill mandated a clear chain of command at the federal level and included language to improve cooperation between federal and state levels.

In November, an updated food code from the Food and Drug Administration included a new standard for fresh-cut leafy greens handling by retail and foodservice establishments.

The FDA’s food code — the first full update in four years — is used as a model for regulators throughout the country.

Specifically, the 2009 version states that fresh-cut leafy greens are now included among the foods that require time and temperature control for safety.

In November, The Packer reported that a USDA ruling on a proposed voluntary national marketing agreement for leafy green vegetables would take place in 2010.

The national agreement would likely be modeled after the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement enacted after the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to spinach.

In October, momentum built for the Senate’s food safety reform bill.

The House passed a food safety bill July 30.

In June, the voluntary national leafy greens marketing agreement aimed at food safety appeared to garner wide support.

“It is practical, given the volume of leafy greens from California and Arizona are already covered, that most of the industry is covered but not all of it,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., one of the groups backing the proposal.

About 90% of the nation’s leafy green production is from California and Arizona, Means said, leaving about 10% that could be covered through the national agreement.

“It’s something the industry recognized that this is the way to standardize production practices,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., a backer of the agreement.

A June 8 news release from Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers and the groups said a national agreement is the best way to “implement best practices and a corresponding verification program that could reduce the potential for microbial contamination in these crops.”

The movement for national standards began to take shape in late 2008, when the Leafy Greens Council proposed a national marketing agreement modeled on the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement.

The proposal for a nationwide agreement was discussed at the St. Paul, Minn.-based council’s Oct. 26 meeting during PMA Fresh Summit 2008.