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Creating a Culture : LGMA Looks at 10 Years of Success

Food safety is in the building blocks of a fresh produce foundation, and this association is the quiet keeper of that code. With a 10-year anniversary marking a decade of growth and dedication, The California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) is embracing a transparency trend that is not only helping to define food safety but further promoting healthy practices, from cultivation to consumption.

“There is a widespread focus on protecting public health–this is that ‘culture of food safety’ that we talk about and emphasize, and we really see this change happening,” Scott Horsfall, CEO of the LGMA, shares with me. “The leafy greens community remains united in its understanding that protecting public health by providing the safest leafy greens possible is job number one.”

Like all paths forged, this was not always the case—it had to be learned at an unfortunate price. The tragic E. coli outbreak of 2006 would mark a significant turn that ultimately helped the California leafy greens industry come out stronger and wiser.“The outbreak would ultimately cost the leafy greens industry more than $350 million, as the nation turned away from its growing appetite for fresh, ready-to-eat spinach,” Scott tells me.

Food safety staff survey fields multiple times before harvest

It is an experience that spurred one of the early minds of LGMA and current leader of Ocean Mist Farms, Joe Pezzini, to find a solution.

“It was a tipping point for the produce industry, changing food safety and putting it to the front of our mind, probably forever more,” Joe recalls. “It was an incredible endeavor, and it’s still remarkable to me that we’ve put together this lasting program that has really worked. I can’t say we set out to create a food safety culture; I don’t think we could have even imagined that, but now that’s certainly what has happened.”

Today, the leafy greens industry is a united front on food safety. “Coming out of the crisis of 2006, the leafy greens farming community, working with the State of California and a host of trade associations, developed the LGMA,” Scott says. “Our mandate was, and is, to verify through government inspection that leafy greens growers were implementing science-based food safety practices on the farm.”

Now marking a decade of growth, the LGMA is evolving from assessing industry practices to assimilating.

“While the program’s goals haven’t changed, I’d say there’s been a real shift from a focus on audits and inspections to the overarching goal of creating a food safety culture on each farm,” Scott reflects as I ask him how the association and its goals have morphed over the last decade. “We’ve seen many companies make the subtle shift from following these rules because they have to, to following them because they are the right thing to do.”

Truly, this echoes something that I have seen walking the California fields from Salinas to Oxnard, where many times I had to suit up and spray before entering any facility in such a way that I can’t envision a time without these measures.

“I wanted to be a part of this because there was a need,” Steve Church, Church Brothers Farms Co-Chairman, shares when I ask how he got involved. “People of the leafy greens community got together and formed an unbelievable program. A lot of the buyers might want GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) because it covers not just leafy greens but everything, but I would say the LGMA guidelines are the most stringent. I can’t say enough about the staff and all that they do for the industry. They get it done, and it’s a first class organization.”

Jan Berk, COO of San Miguel Produce, first became involved with LGMA in the early months of the organization’s start-up.

“George Boskovich asked me if I would serve in his position representing the Oxnard/Santa Maria region due to some time constraints he had at that time,” Jan remembers. “The creation of LGMA marked a very important turning point for our industry at a very critical time. As a leafy green grower/handler, I felt it was important for us to be involved. As an industry, we all had to take a step back and look at how we viewed and practiced food safety within our own companies, both large and small.”

Joe Pezzini, the first LGMA Chairman, presents Arnold Schwarzenegger with an award in 2009Jan also shares that the necessary changes were not initially easy to implement, commenting, “The idea of a government and industry partnership was a significant new approach that would establish a stronger, science-based, rigorous food safety program with accountability. As one of the smaller companies on the LGMA board, it was a challenge for us in the first year to dedicate the extra resources needed to implement the program, but we were committed and therefore took the steps needed to enhance our program to meet the LGMA standards.”

These are the faces behind the salads in the ‘Salad Bowl’ of California and beyond.

“I don’t think anyone thought of this cultural shift happening; we just were taking one step at a time to put together a good program that will make an impact. Ten years later I would say we’ve done that,” Joe adds.

And the biggest little secret for me about the team that fuels food safety in leafy greens is the size of it. When I ask Scott the most shocking aspect of LGMA, he tells me, “Perhaps that we do all that we do with a very small staff—we have a total of four full-time employees and a few outside contractors. The staff is dedicated and skilled, which allows us to accomplish a lot without a large number of people.”

Steve agrees, saying that even with the size, the team does wonders.

“Scott and his staff do a great job,” Steve tells me. “We thought we were safe before, but the LGMA has set up tremendous training programs so that we go out in the field always conscious of the environment and to be very food safe. We are more aware, better trained, and we carry out the steps we need to.”

Even with so few hands the team manages to stay ahead of the curve, constantly measuring current events and conditions to ensure that food safety practices and strategies are a step ahead of possible dangers.

“We stay involved in national forums, both with the trade associations and with the federal agencies. We are constantly seeking to make sure our Metrics, for example, are updated with the latest science,” Scott explains.

Those Metrics are so key, in fact, that the LGMA has become a valuable tool. For example, Scott shares, the association provides the buy-side with government inspection so that all growers covered by the program are in compliance with the LGMA Metrics.

“Most buyers recognize that the LGMA Metrics represent the highest science-based standards; by inspecting farms and driving continuous improvement, the LGMA is making sure that buyers know that their suppliers are, in fact, implementing those practices and meeting those standards.”

Steve Church, current LGMA Chairman, with California Secretary of Agriculture Karen RossIt’s on this same playing field that the LGMA has built some of its greatest achievements since its inception. Aside from formulating and consistently improving upon a food safety learning curve—which otherwise barely existed—through training and education, the team has built positive relationships with vital parties in implementing the best structure for food safety.

“Whether it’s our good relationships with government agencies like the USDA, the FDA, and the California Department of Public Health, or our very positive relationship with victim’s group STOP Foodborne Illness, the LGMA has actively sought to build bridges to others in the food safety community who are striving to protect public health,” Scott tells me.

Those bridges are branching out to new frontiers in food safety. When I ask what is on the docket for the next decade, Scott says, “The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is, of course, the biggest thing on the immediate agenda. For the first time, the federal government has passed laws that impact growers on the farm. Luckily, much of what is in the Produce Safety Rule (the part of FSMA that overlaps with what the LGMA does on-farm) aligns very closely with what we do. So, we are working to make sure that our program does double duty—that we not only certify that our members are in compliance with the LGMA’s rules, but also with the new federal rules.”

Also in the works are strengthening its buyer outreach and furthering education for all those who handle leafy greens by hand in working to get them to the consumer.

“As retailers, restaurants, and foodservice distributors determine their own food safety needs, the LGMA is working to make sure they are fully aware of what certification by the LGMA means and how it provides value to them,” Scott impresses. “Likewise, the LGMA is working to expand its training program through LGMA Tech, and to offer value back to the industry in the never-ending need to educate and train workers.”

Workers harvesting leafy greens

Just as a parent’s work is never finished, so is the stewarding of food safety in an industry that looks to be, first and foremost, the key to a healthy lifestyle inside and out.

“At the beginning it was a leap of faith because it hadn’t been done before,” Joe reflects. “But even so, it’s really paid forward many times more over than what we put into it. It’s worked so well and created a food safety culture that none of us could have imagined.”

While the goal was simply to bring together a united front, ten years later the LGMA has created so much more: A produce culture of science-based safety. With new frontiers to conquer, I’m strapping in to see what this paramount group does with another decade of experience, technology, and, of course, produce.