Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The three men who saved the leafy greens industry

When a deadly foodborne illness outbreak in late 2006 was linked to spinach from a California field, three men leapt into action to try to save their industry.

Within months, they created the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which set strict food safety standards for farms and processors and became a model for the Food Safety Modernization Act's still emerging Produce Safety Rule.

But it took quick thinking in the beginning to get the effort off the ground.

Joe Pezzini, now the president of the Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms, had just been named chairman of a local growers' group when the outbreak occurred in September 2006. His farm wasn't implicated, but he took it upon himself to meet with the press.

And there was a lot of media. The USDA had just advised stores across the country to stop selling fresh spinach in the wake of an E. coli outbreak that would end up being blamed for at least 276 illnesses and three deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I was listed in the book, and reporters started calling my house," said Pezzini, who had just been named board chairman of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. "There was so much speculation and rumor going around. I stepped forward and started meeting with the press. I took them out to a field."

James Bogart, the GSA's president, was at a meeting in Washington, D.C., when news of the outbreak hit. He started calling other grower organizations for help, and the GSA's headquarters in Salinas became a meeting place for the industry's response.

"This was basically Ground Zero," said Bogart, who started with the GSA as a staff attorney in 1980. "I've lived through floods, I've lived through union strikes and boycotts. This event … was the worst thing I've ever experienced in 40 years representing the industry."

One of the people he called was Western Growers president Tom Nassif, who immediately began negotiations with then-state Food and Agriculture secretary A.G. Kawamura on setting up a marketing order for leafy greens that would include the standards that would restore consumers' trust.

All of this brings me to what I've been immersed in in the past week and why I went to the Salinas Valley last month -- a major centerpiece story on how a hastily put together marketing order in the wake of an industry crisis became a model for other ag industries to emulate, and played a role in the development of new federal food safety regulations that will affect -- and seek to benefit -- every consumer.

Watch for my story at in the coming days.

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