produceThe San Jose Mercury News reports that Californians shouldn’t be surprised that the federal Food and Drug Administration is essentially abdicating its responsibility to help ensure the safety of fresh produce, most of which is grown in the Central Valley.

In fact, it’s hard to decide which is the worst part about the new guidelines offered Monday by the FDA: That they took seven years to develop or that they are non-binding, meaning food processors can simply choose to ignore them.

Now it’s up to the state to maintain consumer confidence in the safety of its leafy green vegetables, like lettuce and spinach. Quality greens are important for consumer health and are a vital part of the state’s economy.

The state should complete its plans by summer to impose mandatory controls on growers. The food industry should work with the Legislature to guarantee that a set of enforceable standards is in place that will guarantee that every food handler in the business complies. 

The need is obvious. E. coli outbreaks from contaminated produce have doubled over the past decade. And September’s nationwide outbreak was traced back to prepackaged spinach grown at a farm in the Salinas Valley.

The deadly episode did tens of millions of dollars of damage to the $1.5 billion industry. The results of an investigation into the outbreak are expected within the next 10 days, and it should offer additional insights into what actions are necessary.

The debate in Sacramento is centered on how much regulation should be left to industry – which has a huge vested interest in stopping the outbreaks – and when the Legislature and the state Department of Food and Agriculture need to intervene.

State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Bakersfield, has introduced three bills that would require state certification and inspection of produce farms. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he leans toward wanting the industry to police itself, as much as possible. State Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-San Luis Obispo and a Santa Maria strawberry farmer, is trying to help negotiate a compromise that will accomplish the safety goals with the least amount of government intervention. A GOP rarity in the Legislature, he was appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, to head the Senate Agriculture Committee. Some form of independent inspection is essential, and the industry has enough of an interest in certifying the safety of their products that it should be willing to help pay the costs.

Meat and poultry operations have mandatory sanitation standards that should help provide a model for produce regulations. The state should ensure that its produce farms and food processors are being regularly inspected to eliminate the possibility of contamination.

California should be aggressive about guaranteeing that its farms and food-processing facilities meet the highest standards for sanitation.