By Jane Palmer, Mercury News Correspondent
original link: www.mercurynews.com
Tom Willey is so concerned about food safety he is willing to bet the farm on it.
Willey and his wife, Densesse, own an organic farm just outside of Madera in the central San Joaquin Valley, where they grow lettuce, carrots, cabbage and nearly 50 other hand-harvested vegetables. They supply 800 local families and West Coast retailers with a year-round supply of fresh produce.
But in the last three years, a dark cloud has gathered over Willey’s farm. He and other organic farmers say stricter food-safety regulations, developed after a cluster of outbreaks of bacterial contamination in spinach and lettuce in 2006, threaten the principles upon which their farms are based.
While Willey already adheres to the voluntary food-safety regulations deemed necessary by the organic farm community, he feels that many of the rules — which include cutting bare buffer zones around crops, using poison to kill rodents and washing produce with chlorinated water — run contrary to growing healthy and safe food.
“Healthy produce cannot be grown in sterile environments,” Willey said. “That’s both ignorant and dangerous.”
Moreover, opponents of the regulations say that the new measures are threatening the livelihood of small-scale and organic farms. Willey, who refuses to adhere to regulations he believes are ultimately harmful, runs the risk of not being able to sell his crops. Other small farms that do comply face burdensome
But supporters of the regulations, part of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, argue that all farms should comply in the interests of food safety.
“For the smaller growers, I don’t think it is reasonable to throw up their hands and say it doesn’t apply to us, or we are not the problem or we can never be the problem,” said Trevor Suslow, a food-safety expert and plant pathologist at UC Davis whose research helped form the basis of the regulations.
The incentive for the California agreement was a virulent outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach grown in San Benito County in 2006. It resulted in the hospitalization of more than 200 people in the U.S. and Canada, and the death of three. The pathogen also claimed another victim: the leafy greens industry.
“Spinach was off the menu nationwide,” said Paul Simonds, spokesman for the Western Growers Association. The outbreak cost the industry $100 million in lost sales as customer confidence in all leafy greens plummeted.