If anything could snowball in Florida, it would appear to be food safety programs for fruits and vegetables.

That is the case among the Sunshine State’s leafy green growers and shippers.

The industry—focused primarily in the Everglades area near Belle Glade—has taken a cue from the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, which standardizes safety protocols and mandates regular third-party audits.

The California program, launched in the spring of 2007, has drawn attention as a model for a potential national marketing agreement. That process, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could take a year or more to develop, even under the smoothest of circumstances.

There are a few wrinkles to address first—not the least of which is a move on the part of a group of major retail and foodservice buyers to demand even stricter standards for safety than any that are currently in use or planned.

But Florida isn’t waiting for the rest of the country. The state’s growers spent much of last year developing their own safety code, tailored to their own region’s peculiarities, says Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland.

“The lettuce and leafy green producers, particularly in South Florida, have been working for quite awhile, actually, on looking at the California program and documents, looking at their applicability to Florida production systems, particularly south of Lake Okeechobee, where virtually all of it is produced,” Stuart says. “And they are working through a co-operative that we manage for them to develop and adopt these GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) and (BMPs) Best Manufacturing Practices for their use.”

Now, Florida growers have begun to implement their own program to ensure the safety of their lettuce and leafy greens. As of September, producers have been participating in a program of codified safe growing and handling practices that they say require periodic audits, standardize procedures and strengthen perceptions about the integrity of their products.

A national trend

California’s program is only the beginning of more changes to come, says Stephen Basore, food safety director for TKM/Bengard Farms in Belle Glade and chairman of the food safety committee for the Maitland-based Florida Vegetable Exchange.

“It’s something that’s evolving right now, so this is all something new,” he says. “And, I think, basically, it’s a positive thing that’s happening. It’s something that people have a lot of uncertainty about because it’s new. But I think once people get familiar with what the California agreement is asking for, it will be easy and it will be good for the consumer.”

It’s also a natural response to last year’s e-coli outbreaks that were traced to some California spinach fields, he says.

“There’s just a lot of pressure for something to come out that would better guarantee the safety of the products,” he says.

More growing regions are following California’s lead; Arizona’s leafy green growers, for example, launched their own food-safety program Jan. 1.

California as a model

Florida spent much of 2007 developing its own standards, based on the California model, says Danny Raulerson, manager of the Florida Vegetable Exchange.

He says the exchange’s board voted to proceed with standards in June.

“We went through the California agreement with a fine-tooth comb, noting obvious differences in production practices, geography, soil types, hydrology, all these environmental as well as production differences between Florida and California,” Raulerson says. “Most of the areas that were addressed within their agreement fit the profile of how we produce lettuce and leafy greens in the Everglades Agricultural Area.”

Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Product Handler Marketing Agreement, says the agreement has been an invaluable tool to California’s industry.

“The program is working well,” he says. “Obviously, the strongest proof of that is the fact that we hadn’t had any illnesses traced to California leafy greens this year. All of our members are doing a great job implementing GAPs. We’ve had close to 400 audits this year. We’re seeing really, really positive things happening this year, and we’re feeling pretty good about it.”

Horsfall traveled to Florida in September to offer growers a little guidance.

“There’s been a lot of communication between California and Florida,” says Horsfall, who was hired to lead the California program in May. “I went out to Florida back in September to share with them how things were working with our program. They were interested to learn about some of the things we’d been through. Back in September, they were looking at modeling their leafy green program on the GAPs that are in place here.”

Raulerson says Florida’s version gives growers a sense of added confidence in—and validation of—many practices that growers already had been using.

“It further strengthens the food-safety practices that they adopted prior to this agreement and the practices that they’ve implemented from third-party audits and what their customers have imposed on them prior to purchasing product,” he says.

Not going far enough

New standards apparently are not going far enough for some buyers, however.

In November, a group called the Food Safety Leadership Council—including buyers from Publix, Lakeland; Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark.; Darden Restaurants, Orlando; McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.; Avendra LLC, Rockville, Md.; and Walt Disney World Co., Burbank, Calif.—called for compliance with even more stringent food-safety requirements than any others either currently implemented or in the planning stages.

The request drew criticism from several industry groups, including Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers and FFVA.

Many in the industry are upset that this group is making requests that are not science-based, Stuart says.

“One of the biggest things the grower-shipper community is concerned about is a potential for an arms race to see who can come up with the most stringent standards for food safety, whether or not it’s science-based,” he added.

That’s why FFVA’s board in June adopted a position of advocating a unified national standard for safety, he says.

“It’s one that allowed commodity groups to pursue a singular approach rather than kind of a patchwork approach,” he says, adding that the latter is laced with potential problems.

Industry groups, such as FFVA, hope to resolve any differences with the Food Safety Leadership Council in a manner that leaves everyone happy, Stuart says.

One way or another, the movement toward national safety standards is gaining momentum, Basore says.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in that and a lot of interest from the California growers, since they're the ones that are producing the majority of the leafy greens and vegetables,” he says. “They’re going to want everyone to play by the same rules they are playing by, so I think they’re going to put a lot of pressure for that to happen.”

Florida, in a sense, is setting the stage for national standards by adapting some of the basics of California’s agreement to its own unique growing conditions, Basore says.

“As these new growing regions come in, there’s consideration for different growing methods, because the way things are done in Salinas isn’t necessarily the same for Michigan or Ohio or other regions.”

Tomato standards draw near

Leafy greens growers in Florida also have another model to follow in establishing food-safety standards—this one, a little closer to home.

Florida tomato growers and shippers are pouring millions of dollars into food safety and quality assurance programs.

Tomato leaders during the spring persuaded the state Legislature to institute a mandatory safety program.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill into law May 25 that gave the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services the authority to develop and enforce food safety regulations covering all parts of the state’s tomato production.

The proposed final rule was published in mid-December and a hearing held Jan. 7.

“We’re moving forward, hopefully, for implementation of the proposed rule sometime after that,” says Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange.

The standards—the first of their kind in the tomato industry—are a giant step toward establishing one set of safety standards in the tomato industry, Brown says.

“We’ve been working on this for three years,” he added. “We’re hoping it will be a model for other parts of the country to look to.”

The program authorizes both regular and unannounced safety audits.

“We’ve been working very closely with California’s fresh tomato growers; they have a similar regulation out there, and we’ve tried to work in tandem with them, knowing that uniformity is essential to a producer’s sanity,” Brown says.

Florida growers also have been working with the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., toward an ultimate goal of industry-wide standards.

“Our hope is to build a standardized guidance document for tomatoes applicable throughout North America,” Brown says. “Then, we’d work on a standardized audit document. “ This ‘my product is safer than your product’ stuff is nonsense.”

The goal is to implement the new standards for tomatoes by July 1, says Shannon Shepp, director of the Division of Fruit and Vegetables for the Florida Department of Ag and Consumer Services.

But none of it is anything that is new to the tomato industry, she says.

“Most of the tomato industry has already employed these practices,” she says. “This just makes it mandatory, so if there’s somebody out there who hasn’t decided that this is part of their business plan yet, this makes it mandatory for them to do it, largely because the industry wants to protect its consumers and protect its market share.”

Past food borne-illness outbreaks were great motivators, Shepp says.

“We saw what happened with the spinach outbreaks, and, certainly, they want to grow a wholesome, healthy product that doesn’t put consumers in harm’s way,” Shepp says. “They enjoy doing that and would like to continue doing that.”

Safety first

The bottom line is that Florida growers of tomatoes and leafy greens have taken the opportunity to lead their industries, says Martha Roberts, a consultant with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“I think the Florida fruit and vegetable growers are to be commended,” she says. “The lettuce and leafy greens and tomato growers have stepped out and just gone forward with their food-safety program because it was needed. It’s what the market demanded. They wanted to have a safe product.”

The guts of each program may be distinct from the other, but the goals are identical, Roberts says.“They’re unique and separate, but the core is food safety,” she says. “As different commodities, practices had to be developed separately. Everyone in all commodities have to be careful about the soil, the environment and the weather. So, those things are all common to each one, but everyone would be looking to carefully add the microbial levels in any water that they use in irrigation and use that very safely to make sure they’re not contaminating their product in any way. Many of the core principles are the same.”

Raulerson was quick to emphasize that Florida’s leafy green standards don’t establish anything new for the industry.

“There’s nothing new, really,” he says. “Prior to this agreement, there was water sampling that was being done, both at the field level and at the packinghouse level. Sanitation, in terms of worker hygiene, all the areas that are addressed in the agreements were also addressed in third-party audits.”

Florida’s leafy green program will continue to adapt to advances in science and the demands of customers, Raulerson says.