My parents grew up in Yuma, Arizona. One of my grandfathers leveled farmland across Dome Valley, and my other grandfather managed miles of crops there. The agriculture industry still employs 25% of Yuma County workers. Yuma’s growing season lasts from October to March and produces 90% of the nation’s leafy greens, including lettuce, cabbage, spinach, and kale. That lettuce may be picked one day and arrive in stores the next, but it takes several stops in between.
Workers are transported by bus from the Mexican border each day. They are not allowed to work if they have the flu or any other disease. Eating, drinking, and spitting is not allowed in the field. They must wear hairnets and gloves and keep their upper pockets empty. One field can take seven hours to harvest. Workers walk behind the harvester machine, picking cabbage off the ground, cutting off excess debris, and tossing them into the loader. A cut hand, a missing blade, a piece of trash, or a trace of animal feces can halt a harvest, resulting in a loss of a crop or an entire field.
Ten years ago, there were no uniform safety standards for leafy greens and it was left up to the industry to self-police. An outbreak of E. coli in 2006 changed safety for leafy greens, after sickening people in 26 states. That outbreak was traced to a California spinach farm. There has never been an outbreak from a Yuma farm source, as the warm, dry climate doesn’t invite pathogens the way other regions do.
The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) is a certification program among producers to follow specific guidelines regarding pesticides, irrigation, field workers, equipment, storage, and transportation. The food safety process begins in the field before the seed is planted with soil samples, water tests and field inspections. Inspections continue through the harvest with equipment audits and checklists. All infractions must be corrected within five days. Storage bins are lined with plastic, taken to the harvester, and filled with fresh greens. Farmers sell to several shippers, or produce handlers. It is driven to a processing facility, where it is stored until delivery to stores and restaurants. The FDA oversees the processing plant and transportation, checking cooler temperatures and the labeling of products. Grocery stores have their own produce inspectors who check it over and perform a vegetable wash before shelving. Be sure to wash produce before you use it as another layer of safety.
The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 calls to start enforcing more food safety measures this year to prevent future contamination. These standards apply to all growers and shippers regardless of product. The new rules will cover all parts of farm production. Small producers under $500,000 and those who sell within 400 miles are exempt from the law. The food industry has spent millions since 2011 complying with these new federal standards.
Anglen, Robert. “How safe is your salad? Follow produce from Yuma, Arizona, to your grocery store.” Business. Arizona Central, 6 Feb 2017. Web. 7 Feb 2017.