Agriculture Secretary: California Products, Food Safety Vital to World Supply

California supplies two-thirds of the world’s fruit and tree nuts, along with one-third of the vegetables, a status that must be protected by following food safety standards.

That was the message delivered Friday by the state’s agricultural leader to a group gathered in Lompoc.

“One of the trends we all need to keep in mind is we are part of an interconnected global society, and California has become that reliable, safe, high-quality provider to the global food chain,” California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said.

Ross spoke to more than 150 people who attended the “Growing Possibilities Ag Forum” at the Dick DeWees Community and Senior Center.

The forum was hosted by the Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara, the City of Lompoc and Allan Hancock College.

“It’s easy to get lost in the numbers of what we do, but they have such big impact, and it’s something to bear in mind,” Ross said.

California is the nation’s No. 1 ag state, with $42.6 billion in agricultural productivity annually, she said, adding tha tag exports totaled more than $18 billion, a number that increased 176 percent in the last decade.

“What would the world do without California?” Ross asked.

California now ships wine to 102 countries, and the state is the world’s fourth-largest wine producer, she added.

“I love all 400 commodities equally, but there are just some that help me get through the day better,” said Ross, drawing laughter from the audience.

She is the former president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers and former executive director of the Winegrape Growers of America.

Ross noted that the value of the state’s produce may be taken for granted by Californians, but is obvious to anyone who has tried to find quality fresh vegetables or fruit in another nation or on the East Coast in the winter.

“The bounty of agriculture in California and the diversity of choices that we offer to consumers here and around the world is unparalleled,” Ross added.

During her international trips, Ross said, she repeatedly hears about how other nations that experienced their own food-safety scares know they can count on California agriculture, noting the state’s growers learned “a hard lesson in very harsh ways.”

“That fact is, we have learned, and that investment that we do on our farms, ranches and processing plants to maximize safety and prevent an incident has translated into something very very positive,” she added.

Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, told about the successful rules and practices put into place by lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens growers.

The agreement followed an especially virulent e.coli outbreak pinpointed to spinach, leaving more than 200 people sick and causing four deaths in 2006.

“It’s really that culture of food safety we’re driving towards establishing and creating in our industry,” he said.

Eight years ago, a federal alert warning people not to eat spinach hit the California industry hard.

“It basically went from a fairly robust market to zero sales overnight,” he said.

In response, the leafy greens industry created the marketing agreement calling for safety regulations, covering basically everything found in a bowl of salad, Horsfall noted.

“A really important reason they did this was to bring mandatory government oversight on the farm. There had never been a government program on the farm related to food safety in the past,” he said.

This program means farms undergo several safety audits each year, and must regularly test water sources. Worker hygiene also is important, with hair nets required in the fields.

Members are certified as meeting the food safety standards, he said, adding the rules have led to a culture change in the field where workers are commended if they report possible problems.

Santa Barbara County Ag Commissioner Cathy Fisher told the crowd that while agriculture is a multimillion-dollar industry between Santa Maria and Carpinteria, its value actually is much higher.

Her agency hired a consultant to identify the broader impact of ag in the county, using the 2012 crop report of $1.3 billion for production value. In reality, using the multiplier effect to include indirect aspects such as supplies, ag contributed $2.8 billion to the economy in Santa Barbara County.

“That’s quite a difference,” she added.

Fisher also said agriculture in the county created approximately 25,000 jobs.

The forum include a panel discussion focused on the opportunities and challenges of the ag sector.

Andy Rice of OSR Enterprises urged those in attendance to focus on working together.

“Collaboration is the key word. If you take nothing else out of today, take that,” he said.

Along with food safety, the event highlighted agriculture in northern Santa Barbara County, and included a showing of the “Growing Possibilities” video created by Hancock College.

Awards were given to a six longtime ag-industry employees from several firms plus the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.

(Noozhawk Sept 2014):