The Magic of California Big Ag…How to Make Small Flavors Disappear!

Someone has just brought me a lovely head of Traviso from her CSA box. This is one of my favorite greens and sadly enough the first thought that came to my mind was…how soon before this flavor disappears in California?

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, I’m afraid that we might be on teh edge of losing wonderful flavors like this from our plates…flavors that for years have been slowly brought back and nurtured through the small and creative family farmer. Americans are finally rediscovering what spinach or tomato or apples should taste like. The have discovered new flavors in greens like Deer Tongue, Curly Endive, Arugula and Traviso. Today, these flavors are being threatened by the magic of well intentioned but unbendable California Big Ag. The Western Growers Association recently implemented a uniform set of growing standards called Leafy Greens Handles Agreement in their effort to recover from the spinach E.coli 0157 outbreak of 2006. This is very well intentioned. The standards are mandatory for farmers who sell to more than 100 handlers that hae signed on to the Agreement. At issue is the fact that this Agreement could become law. When it does, new farming production standards will be mandatory for all leafy green grwoers, including small farmers, that could undo decades of flavor devlopment and sustainable practices. And, that’s where the Ageement just doesn’t make sense.

The safety of the food we serveshould always be a priority. But the "catch-all" approach of the Agreement applies production standards to producers other than those who process (pre-cut/bagged) leafy greens. It includes the small sell-direct farmers who have no connection to the processed industry and are least likely to be the cause of any major outbreak. The Community Alliance of Family Farmers (CAFF) has recently analyzed data provided by the FDA that greatly supports this. It shows that since 1999, 80% of E.coli 0157 outbreaks in leafy greens in California hae been traced to processed bagged salad. The source for the balance of thesecases (20%) could not be identified because of lack of traceability records. The data also reveals that 98.5% of the reported illnesses were also traced o processed greens. THese products have a higher potential for contamination becaus of centralized washing and packaging of mixed produce rom different farms. Pre-cut salads are then placed into saled plastic bags, which may create an ideal environment for bacterial growth if not kept cold at all times. The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement should focus on these higher-risk producers and not the traditional sell-direct farmers of fresh greens.

There have been several attempts by CAFF to encourage the Western Growers Association to change their definitions so tat the Agreement would be limited to growers of processd leafy greens and not growers of fresh leafy greens. Western Growers refused to budge on this. One CAFF grower in the Salinas Valley was already told by his buyer that he couldn’t sell them any product from fields that had been fertilize with organic compost! Others have been told to start pulling wildlife habitat. Of bigger concerns: this could become the start of a nationwide movement (other states are considering adopting a similar plan) and domino to other crops like tomatoes, etc, etc! A rampant loss of flavor based on marketing interests and not scientific data.

The attached letter (Download LGSLetter.pdf) simply asks Western Growers to redefine "leafy greens" and the growers that produce them. But it also send a message that you are concerned about their direct impact on the future of flavor and sustainable farming practices. If you are a chef or restaurateur doing business with members of the Western Growers, let them know you are especially concerned about the Agreement and how it could affect your menus and business.

If we can work our magic, maybe we can make the impacts of this Agreement disappear! Fax those letters to Kira Pascoe at CAFF (650) 521-0185! For a fact sheet on the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, click here (Download LGFactSheet.pdf).

marc zammit, director of culinary support and development 

This is one of my favorite photos…a farmer from the Salinas Valley offering up Deer Tongue Lettuce and challenging us to taste the difference…"because you won’t find a flavor like this in our grocery stores." Hopefully for us eaters and future eaters, Deer Tongue Lettuce and other delicious greens will be around for us to enjoy for many years to come.