“It’s an understandable response when the federal government has left a vacuum,” said Michael R. Taylor, a former officer in two federal food-safety agencies and now a professor at George Washington University. But, he added, “it’s not a substitute” for serious federal regulation.
Nonetheless, the approach is spreading. After two salmonella outbreaks earlier this decade, the almond industry developed a pasteurization program that is overseen by the federal Department of Agriculture. The Florida tomato industry, implicated in several salmonella outbreaks, persuaded the state to take on the task of regulating food safety on farms and at packing houses.
In California, the “leafy greens” industry, which grows spinach and lettuce, was desperate after a 2006 outbreak of a harmful strain of Escherichia coli, the intestinal germ. As Americans stopped eating spinach for weeks, the industry suffered $100 million in losses. It now pays the state money so that auditors like Ms. Anderson can inspect farm fields for safety. The arrangement is called the Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement.
Arizona created a similar leafy greens agreement, and plans are afoot to expand it nationwide. Other food industries have expressed interest in the leafy greens model.
“They realize they can’t sit back and wait” for an outbreak to occur, said Thomas A. Nassif, president and chief executive of the Western Growers Association, who recently outlined the leafy greens program to representatives of the peanut industry, subject of another recent recall. “It will be expanded.”
The leafy greens agreement and others like it are an outgrowth of the nation’s hodge-podge food safety system, which roughly splits oversight between the Department of Agriculture — responsible for meat, poultry and some egg products — and the FDA, which is supposed to monitor the remaining 80 percent of the food supply. But where the Agriculture Department employs a field force of 7,800 to inspect all the cows, pigs and chickens that are carved into packaged meats, the F.D.A.’s 1,307 inspectors rarely lay eyes on the vast majority of the products they are entrusted with keeping safe.
For many years, the food industry lobbied against initiatives that would have strengthened the F.D.A.’s oversight. But industry attitudes are changing as food-borne pathogens turn up repeatedly in foodstuffs once regarded as safe, like peanuts and pistachio nuts, costing those industries millions in lost sales.
With public confidence in the food supply on the line and little appetite for new regulations during the Bush administration, industries went looking for other government agencies that might provide a semblance of oversight.
California’s leafy greens industry turned to 1930s-era laws, passed at the national level and by some states, that allow produce sectors to work together to solve marketing problems. Called marketing agreements or marketing orders, they allow industry to create regulations that are then enforced by government auditors.
Historically, such programs were used to set minimum quality, size and grade requirements for fruits and vegetables and to standardize packaging. But now, they are being adopted to impose safety requirements.
While lauding the recent impulse to act, several food-safety experts said they were troubled leaving safety to industry discretion.