By Vicky Boyd, Editor

It’s been more than two and one-half years since an E. coli outbreak temporarily shut down fresh spinach markets, and Texas spinach grower Dondee Lindenborn says he believes the industry has finally recovered.

Although the road back has been tough, Lindenborn says the spinach industry is in a better position now because of improved food safety measures many growers and packers have adopted.

Uvalde, Texas-based Pentagon Produce has followed good agricultural practices since shortly after they were introduced 10 years ago, says Lindenborn, company vice president.

After the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in spinach in September 2006, he and his partner, Brian Mizokami, refined their good agricultural practices. They switched to plastic packing bins that could be sanitized, implemented strict worker hygiene rules and developed a traceback system, among other practices.

Many of them came from the California leafy green metrics, a commodity-specific GAPs program developed by the industry and food safety experts that is based on science.

Pentagon Produce also undergoes and passes third-party audits conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In addition, Lindenborn and Mizokami have developed similar programs for their other spinach operations in Arizona and Colorado.

“Because of what happened in September two years ago, it was so sad because we all got put into one big pile,” Lindenborn says. “Now with the trace-back system, that problem would have been identified a lot sooner and would have freed us up to be still shipping and not shut down the industry for two months.”

Rewriting the 10-year-old plan

The GAPs that Lindenborn, Mizokami and thousands of other growers like them throughout the nation follow were written more than 10 years ago. Based on recent food-borne illness outbreaks and research results, the Food and Drug Administration plans to update those practices.

One change since the original GAPs document is an increased awareness about the potential food-borne illness risks and mitigation, says David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“Basically, the risks have remained the same...but there are better recommendations now,” Gombas says. “The original GAPs were very broad based and had very little information about relative risks. I would expect these GAPs to have more details and be more relevant about what should be done.”

He says the FDA has placed a high priority on the rewrite and hopes to have it completed before the end of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

GAPs for individual commodities

Since the original GAPs were unveiled, commodity-specific programs have become a trend, says Bob Gravani, a food science professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The California leafy green metrics, known formally as the Leafy Green Handlers Marketing Agreement, is one of those, as is Florida’s T-GAPs, or tomato good agricultural practices.

Both contain metrics, or specific numeric goals or baselines that are based on science.

Unlike some of the other commodity-specific programs that are voluntary, Florida’s tomato program became law in 2007 after the state’s tomato industry pushed for it. California’s leafy green program is evolving to mandatory from voluntary.

But Gombas says metrics are typically specific to one commodity and may not be applicable across the board.

“Are those metrics the same for the leafy greens grown in New Jersey or for tomatoes grown in Colorado or for cherries grown in the Northwest?” he asks.

Gravani and other university food safety experts throughout the nation were part of the original effort to write what is formally known as the Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

They also provided input into the FDA’s recent call for public comments, Gravani says he wouldn’t venture to guess what types of changes the government will ultimately develop.

“Certainly with the problems we have had in the last few years—and I don’t know where this administration is going—but clearly a lot of folks think there will be some regulations on the horizon,” Gravani says. “I think the biggest change will be more metrics, more definitions under the GAPs title, and I think the research needs to catch up.”

Photo by Vicky Boyd

Testing irrigation water routinely is part of the Good Agricultural Practices program as well as the tomato GAPs, or T-GAPs, program.

Among the issues Gravani says he believes the updated document should address are water quality and testing, manure and compost, and wildlife and other disease vectors.

Gauging GAPs adoption

Although GAPs are highly encouraged, they are not mandated by law except if you’re a Florida tomato or packer. Many buyers, however, require that growers follow them as well as undergo a third-party audit.

But how many growers have adopted them is hard to gauge, Gravani says.

Keith Schneider, an associate professor of food science with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Gainesville, says most, if not all, of the large multi-state growers have GAPs. In addition, their buyers require them to be audited.

Many of the smaller growers may follow integrated pest management practices or best management practices, but they may not have a formal GAPs plan in place, he says.

An IFAS survey conducted a few years ago found about 50 percent of the growers didn’t have a formalized GAPs program, Schneider says.

“A lot of those people are doing the right thing because it makes common sense to them.” They just aren’t documenting the practices, he says.

As a result, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was able to secure a U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant to help educate growers about GAPs.

The workshops started out to provide training for tomato growers and packers, which are required by the state to have a GAPs program.

But workshops were expanded to include berries, leafy greens and melons—crops that the state believes to be problematic, Schneider says.

IFAS officials have already conducted six or seven workshops, and Schneider says five more are planned for the remainder of the year.

Make adopting GAPs simple

Gravani routinely asks those attending commodity conferences how many have adopted GAPs. If they haven’t, Gravani asks them why.

One grower’s answer stuck with him. “’I love to grow fruits and vegetables. I don’t want to be a bookkeeper,’” Gravani says the grower told him.

Schneider says he has heard some different arguments.

“’I’ve been farming for 40 years, and I haven’t killed anybody yet,’” one grower told Schneider.

The IFAS workshops and all of the associated handouts are free, including two training DVDs in Spanish and English, hand-washing and plant sanitation posters in both languages, and a self-assessment test.

“We want to give them as much information as we can, and we want them to do the things that have the most impact,” Schneider says.

Much of the materials also will be on a Web site that IFAS plans to launch this summer.

The site also will feature on-line training sessions as well as exams at the end.

Schneider says he hopes these types of voluntary efforts will prevent further regulation.

“It’s not us telling the farmers what to do,” he says. “It’s the buyers, and ultimately it’s the consumers telling the big buyers who are telling the farmers. For better or for worse, this is not going to go away.”

Contact Vicky Boyd at (209) 571-0414 or