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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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New Mexico produce growers learn of California's new mandatory standards

LAS CRUCES - With the recent recalls of spinach, shredded lettuce, peanut butter and, now, hamburger, and before the growing and harvesting season begins in New Mexico, producers and processors from across New Mexico met in Las Cruces to discuss ways to protect their crops and products from contamination.

The Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center at New Mexico State University held a workshop to inform members of the produce industry about the California Leafy Green Product Handlers Association, which was established after the 2006 spinach crisis.

Joe Pezzini of OceanMist Farms in California and chairman of the association said contaminated produce from one grower impacts the entire industry.

"The consumer's confidence in our product has not returned and we have not regained our market share of the leafy greens market," Pezzini said of spinach sales. "Since the federal government put a freeze on spinach sales for two weeks in September, we have only returned to 80 percent of our sales for this time of the year. People are slowly regaining confidence in our product."

Pezzini said the positive aspect of the spinach incident was the establishment of the management agreement standards that are more specific than the U.S. Department of Agriculture's good agricultural practices.

"The idea to develop mandatory food safety practices for green leafy produce was presented to the state legislature by the Farm Bureau of California and the Western Growers Association," Pezzini said of a bill that was introduced by California State Sen. Dean Florez from the San Joaquin Valley.

The state inspection program ensures that the standards are met by the producers and processors. Ultimately, an association seal will be on the packaging of the members' produce.

While a food processor conducts internal testing of its product to ensure it is safe, they must also be aware of the environment the produce is coming from so their operation will not be contaminated.

Sharon Gamboa of Rio Valley Chile in Rincon, N.M., said she hoped other states do what California has done. "There has to be better control to ensure all producers are operating at good health standards," she said.

Billy Dictson of the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center said since 80-plus percent of the nation's produce is grown in California the standards adopted there will eventually impact New Mexico growers.

"Producers in New Mexico are aware that they need to do their part in providing non-contaminated food. Currently they are doing their best to make sure the produce is safe for consumption," Dictson said. "But, because of increased awareness of consumers regarding food safety, the marketplace may dictate the way we do business in the future."