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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Grandstanding Senator
To Grill Leafy Greens Board

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 12, 2008

It was almost exactly a year ago when State Senator Dean Florez grilled a produce exec at a hearing in California. The hearing was positively abusive, and we wrote a piece entitled A Tip Of The Hat For Tom Stenzel that included this note:

…when Tom Stenzel flew to California to testify before a joint hearing of the ag committees of the California State Assembly and Senate, one Senator, Dean Florez, who has been very active on these issues, was really out of line. He was positively abusive.

Florez wouldn’t let Tom get a word in edgewise, was ridiculously demanding some sort of guarantee of perfect safety in a world that just can’t deliver that and was rudely dismissive of Tom when he, very politely, tried to speak some sense.

If Tom had stood up and decked the guy, we would have given him an award, albeit in abstencia, while he served time in some jail in the basement of the California State Capitol.

But Tom did what we in the industry are fortunate to have many leaders do on our behalf. He swallowed hard and represented the trade the best that could be done under the circumstances.

As we all go about our business, it is worthwhile to note that we have people willing to do this work on our behalf. A tip of the hat to Tom and to the many leaders who work for the overall success of the industry.

Now we have word that Senator Florez is once again holding a hearing. This time it seems he has found two other industry leaders to be the targets of his abuse: Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott spoke with both today:

Scott Horsfall Scott Horsfall
CEO
California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA)

Q: We received a notice from Senator Florez about the hearing regarding the Taco John outbreak investigation that occurred back in 2006 (and was covered here and here). What is it all about?

A: The hearing is about an outbreak that took place before the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was in place. In our status report, we talked about the number of audits, and the number of citations we had made of our members based on those audits; there were 450 or so.

Senator Florez requested all the information related to all those citations. It was explained to him that specific audits were confidential. But once a company is charged with a flagrant violation, then we provide that information.

We have four levels of violations for citations, most involve corrective action. We don’t release the records unless they’re flagrant violations. Otherwise they are part of ongoing investigations.

Q: Florez says that not fully complying with the Committee’s request reflected a “lack of transparency”. How can LGMA alleviate that perception? Would there be any benefit or detriment to improving food safety by releasing all records?

A: We believe the program’s purpose and the interest of the public are best served by focusing on those companies we have to decertify.

The audits are intended to insure companies are in compliance with good agricultural practices and to allow them to take corrective actions. The companies have done a great job of working with us to do just that.

Q: What kinds of violations are you talking about and how complicated are the corrective actions?

A: The vast majority of citations we cite are very, very minor… a lot are paper work issues, involving missing paper work such as a misplaced water record, usually things the company can correct, and they do. These aren’t violations that have an impact on food safety. Otherwise they’d be considered flagrant violations.

Q: What do you hope to achieve in your testimony?

A: I’ve never had to do one of these hearings before, so I’m not sure what to expect. We welcome the opportunity to talk about the program. I’ve always said I believe the Senator and our industry have mutual interests and we are all coming from the same place, to put in the best program to minimize the chance of illness, but sometimes we might have different methods on getting there.

We’ll answer the questions and do the best we can. The industry has made really great strides in the last year, and Senator Florez acknowledged the progress in a speech he gave last week.

Joe Pezzini Joe Pezzini, Chairman, LGMA
Vice President of Operations
Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, CA

Q: I understand you’ll be attending the hearing tomorrow [March 12] with Scott Horsfall. Could you share your perspective?

A: At the hearing, they will do a report on the investigation of Taco John’s, but we weren’t involved in that.

We all want the same thing; to produce the safest produce possible. We have a good story to tell. The industry has responded in a very proactive and positive way.

It doesn’t mean we can’t improve the program as we go along. This is brand new. It is a living document. The standards may change as science moves forward. This was the fastest way to something in place.

We’ll look at the senator’s input like everyone’s input. Our reputations, our livelihoods and the safety of consumers are all at stake. We all have a desire to make our food as safe as possible. We’ll answer questions in the best faith effort we can.

We’ve issued a status report. We wanted it to realistically portray what the program has done in the past six-month period. And three companies were cited for flagrant violations and decertified.

Knowing this company or that company had a minor infraction doesn’t help food safety. In any auditing program, documentation is critical. The auditor is looking to validate practices. It’s document-intense. There is a learning curve but by and large, people have gotten over that curve. The auditor will note if something isn’t right. Only those cases that potentially put safety at risk should be decertified. It has to be constructive.

The whole premise of the hearing is not merely ridiculous but dangerous. How could an event that occurred before the Leafy Greens Board was formulated even be relevant?

Besides if we want people to share information freely — and we certainly do — they have to feel that it will be kept confidential unless something egregious happens.

We wish Scott and Joe good luck and extend our condolences on having to waste their valuable time with people seeking headlines rather than to improve food safety.

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