PHOENIX – The state budget crisis threatens a program that helps Arizona farmers prevent contamination in lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens, advocates say.
The Arizona Leafy Green Products Shipper Marketing Agreement, also known as Arizona Leafy Greens, is administered by the Arizona Department of Agriculture. It started in September 2007 after California experienced two E. coli outbreaks traced to lettuce and spinach.
“We take food safety very seriously as an industry,” said C.R. Waters, a Yuma farmer who serves as the program’s chairman.
Funded by voluntary assessments to member growers and shippers, the program, which took in about $78,000 this year, sets safety standards for growing leafy greens and brings inspectors from California to assess how farms are meeting those standards.
Waters said members of Arizona Leafy Greens look with worry at fund sweeps lawmakers have made to address the state’s budget deficit. Those sweeps already have cut money from the Agriculture Department’s Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, Grain Research and Promotion Council and Arizona Citrus Research Council, which also are funded by growers.
“The fund sweeps for the 2010 and future budgets are the biggest threat to the viability of the program,” Waters said. “People will be hesitant to put money into a fund if it’s going to be used for something other than its intended purpose.”
Arizona growers provide 75 percent of the leafy green produce consumed in the United States and Canada from November through March. The $1 billion industry employs about 20,000 workers.
Arizona Leafy Greens helps ensure quality and safety by making sure animals don’t get into or feed too close to fields and by monitoring water and soil.
Waters said that in addition to protecting the public, Arizona Leafy Greens helps maintain confidence in the food supply and protects the agriculture industry.
“If there’s an outbreak, people will just quit buying that product,” Waters said.
Kurt Nolte, director of the Yuma County Cooperative Extension, operated by the University of Arizona, said safety standards set by Arizona Leafy Greens protect consumers. He said that sweeping the funds would be unfortunate because the program gets its money from the agriculture industry.
“This is not taxpayer money that might get swept,” Nolte said.
Will Rousseau, chairman of Arizona Leafy Greens Communications Committee, said a fund sweep would be nothing more than an indirect tax increase.
“If the funds were swept away, the industry would be forced to replenish the funds with the risk they would be swept away again,” he said.
Arizona Leafy Greens
• Full Name: Arizona Leafy Green Products Shipper Marketing Agreement
• Focus: Industry program striving for safety in production of lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens.
• Components: Sets standards for safe productions, ensured through audits by government-certified inspectors.
• Launched in September 2007 after two E. coli outbreaks traced to leafy greens grown in California.
• Administered By: Arizona Department of Agriculture
• Funding: Assessments to member growers and shippers – about $78,000 this year.
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Arizona Leafy Greens: