Politics & Government

Florez's E. coli bills defeated by Parra-led Assembly panel

SACRAMENTO -- State Sen. Dean Florez's drive to regulate the lettuce and spinach industry suffered a major setback Wednesday, as a committee led by his longtime rival blocked three bills aimed at stopping E. coli outbreaks.

The long-awaited showdown between Florez, D-Shafter, and Assembly Member Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, lived up to its billing, culminating with a heated exchange in which Florez accused the committee of waiting "for something bad to happen" before acting.

Parra snapped back: "Senator, I'm going to warn you, this is not the message this committee is sending." The message, she continued, "is that we don't agree with your approach to the bills."

Senate Bills 200-202 would implement a state-run inspection program and give the state authority to recall tainted produce. Leafy green growers, shippers and processors also would face a lengthy list of rules, including a ban on portable toilets in fields and a requirement that water and soil be tested.

The legislation is strongly opposed by the agriculture industry, which is adopting its own food safety rules for lettuce and spinach.

The Assembly Agriculture Committee opted not to vote on the two most substantive bills, and defeated by a 5-2 vote a third bill that would have forced companies to create a tracking system to quickly trace contaminated produce.

The committee's actions probably kill the bills for the year, though Florez said he would try to revive them later this year or next year. When it became apparent the legislation would not pass, Florez blasted the committee for relying on the industry-led effort.

"I think the signal the committee is sending is simply that they are willing for one more death to occur until we see that this particular approach does not work -- cannot work," he said.

The industry was spurred to action last year when a Salinas Valley-based E. coli outbreak killed three people and sickened more than 200 nationwide. Contamination was traced to a 50-acre field in San Benito County. Another outbreak was linked to a lettuce-growing region in the Central Valley.

The industry-led inspection program is voluntary, but officials have said that enough produce handlers have signed up to represent nearly 100% of the leafy greens grown in the state. Participants must follow industry-developed best practices or risk losing the right to display a certification seal on produce or paperwork.

In testimony Wednesday, industry officials said the rules are more flexible than what Florez proposed. As opposed to state laws, the industry rules can easily be changed to adapt to new research on food safety, officials said.

The rules -- which include water and soil testing -- "are very tough," said Erin Field, of Western Growers Association, which is leading the effort. "They ensure good food safety."

Florez has made the bills his top legislative priority of the year. In his home turf in the Senate, Florez twisted enough arms to assure passage.

But he found rougher going in the Assembly. He had hoped to get the bills referred first to the more liberal Health Committee. Instead, the legislation was sent to the Agriculture Committee, one of the most moderate panels in the Democratic-dominated Legislature.

Democrats Parra and Cathleen Galgiani of Stockton joined Republicans in voting against the tracking system bill, SB 202. The two moderate lawmakers were also poised to vote against SB 200 and SB 201, which would establish a state inspection program and set fines of up to $10,000 for failure to comply.

Parra, who earned the endorsement of the California Farm Bureau Federation in her last election, told reporters that she was "to this point" satisfied with the industry approach.

"Food is never 100% secure, so even waiting for one more fatality and blaming the industry is not fair," she said after the hearing. "We will do everything to work with [state agriculture officials] and the industry to make sure our food is as safe as it can be."

During the hearing, she blasted Florez: "I know you're going to go out to the press and probably say that if someone else dies, it's on our back. Well, don't blame the members of this committee, senator. Blame me if you have an issue, but that is not the message that we want to get out of this committee."

Florez shot back, criticizing Parra and the committee for failing to vote on two of the bills.

"I think this is one of those cowardly acts that will just kind of haunt people as they go on," he told reporters after the hearing. "And people will ask the question, 'Why didn't you ever vote on food safety?' At least say yes or no."