Where were you when ...?


The Big Picture

Written by Tim York

This article was published in The Packer on August 29, 2021.

The day President Kennedy was shot was my eighth birthday and I was home, sick from school. I remember my grandmother calling to tell my mom the president had been shot and was dead.

I was heading out the door to go to work on September 11, 2001 when I got a call from my stepmom. She told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and to turn on the TV. I was watching live with countless other Americans when the second tower was hit.

Likewise, I remember vividly where I was on Sept. 15, 2006, when the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory warning consumers not to eat spinach. Ironically, I was at a celebratory event honoring the produce industry in the Salinas Valley of California. We literally were walking around eating salads as our phones began dinging with the FDA’s advisory.

We remember these moments because they disrupt life as we know it and we have a sense the world is forever changed — and often not for the better. Obviously, for the consumers of spinach who were sickened or died in the 2006 outbreak, their worlds and their families’ lives shifted forever. Although in a completely different way, for those of us in the produce industry, the event was life-changing as well.

Following that day in September 2006, produce industry trade associations jumped in to help us navigate the media onslaught and recalls. We worked to begin rebuilding our industry’s reputation and we began to understand that we all must adjust to a new reality. Food safety was now the core focus of our businesses. No longer could we think of food safety as "another thing we have to do." Food safety is now the most essential thing we do. And we had to do it right.

As part of this new reality, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was born. The LGMA was in part a response to buyers like Markon (my former employer), Wegmans, Sysco, Schnuck’s, Kroger and many other retail and foodservice businesses who were demanding the industry change its practices.

What we asked for back then were food safety programs that were specific, measurable and verifiable. No longer would food safety guidance that used words like “consider” or “should” be acceptable. Instead, we needed stronger requirements that focused on what “must” or “shall” take place on leafy greens farms. And, as buyers, we expected suppliers to prove they were implementing good agricultural practices on their farms.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture's response was to develop the LGMA. Together with industry expertise, that set food safety standards and then verified those standards were being implemented on California leafy greens farms using USDA-trained auditors. That was the right thing to do back then and it’s just as critical today.

As the LGMA continues to evolve and strengthen its requirements, the lives and livelihoods of leafy greens farmers continue to be changed — perhaps not as significantly as when the LGMA was first created 14 years ago. But, make no mistake, the way leafy greens are farmed is very different today than just two or three years ago.

In the past three years, new standards have been added to the LGMA program to ensure water used to farm leafy greens is safe and that equipment is effectively cleaned and sanitized. Most recently, new practices are now required to ensure the safe use of fertilizers, compost and other soil amendments and crop inputs, and mandatory testing of fields prior to harvest is now required when certain risk factors are present.

The vision we had in 2006 of a food safety program for leafy greens is our reality. As we had hoped, specific requirements are, in fact, measured and verified. They are also continually updated.

For some of us, we don’t know a time when this wasn’t how leafy greens were farmed. We can’t remember when there wasn’t an LGMA or when auditors didn’t visit our farms each day. Food safety is so pervasive throughout or industry that it’s just a part of who we are. And that is a change for the good.

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