(Dec. 29) SALINAS, Calif. — On the heels of recent E. coli outbreaks linked to spinach and other vegetables, Tanimura & Antle Inc. has rolled out its own food safety program.

The announcement, which came after a Dec. 22 meeting with 25 of the company’s growers, was made three weeks prior to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Jan. 12 hearing in Salinas on a proposed leafy greens marketing agreement. Handlers and growers are being asked to voice their concerns about the agreement drawn up by Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.

“Eighty percent of our Salinas growers attended the meeting,” said Bob Mills, the company’s new director of food safety and quality assurance. “Since then, we have discussed the guidelines with each of the remaining growers.”

Mills said the guidelines would include a number of changes to minimum distance requirements from potential risks, standard operating procedures for crops near flood risks and managing use of certified compost.

Alex Camahy, who leases a 250-acre farm in Salinas Valley and has farmed for more than 24 years, was at the meeting. He said he realizes something needs to be done, but thinks the food safety issue has been blown out of proportion.

“Where does it end?” he asked. “As a grower, I’m wondering how all this extra expense is going to be absorbed. I think 2007 is going to be a trying year for us to get these thing organized and to get them corrected.”

The growers who provide produce to Tanimura & Antle were told that the guidelines also called for changes in water-quality testing and preplanting ranch assessments. Mills said there would be increased costs associated with the new guidelines because of testing and possible loss of farmland to increased buffer zones around fields.

“Some growers will plant right up to the wildlife areas,” he said. “We’ve put a minimum buffer zone that will take crop lands that would have been planted out of production.”

He said there are no standard distances for buffer zones.

“Some people have buffer zones of anywhere from 15 to 20 feet around their fields,” he said. “If we determine that because of the terrain the minimum standard is not good enough or we need other barriers to keep the whole range of wildlife out, we may have to increase the minimum we’ve established, which is 30 feet.”