By WES SANDER

Capital Press

A survey by the University of California Small Farm Program shows that the costs of producing leafy greens on California's Central Coast have more than doubled since the 2006 E. coli outbreak.

The outbreak was traced to spinach grown in the region, and buyers of leafy greens have since imposed strict requirements on growing practices.

The incident also resulted in creation of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, a voluntary program that establishes standardized safety precautions in production and handling. Nearly all leafy greens sold in California adhere to the agreement, UC says.

Those who don't participate are small-scale growers selling directly to consumers, chefs and independent grocers.

Growers reported food-safety costs increased 127 percent, from an average of $24.04 per acre to $54.63 per acre, according to the survey.

But UC says that figure could actually exceed $100 per acre in seasonal and one-time improvements. That's because growers may have omitted some costs, including time invested by the owner and labor costs, UC says. The survey also found that costs were lowest for growers with revenues over $10 million.

"In California, we see that smaller farms are at a cost disadvantage under LGMA to the largest leafy greens growers -- specifically those that have annual revenues over $10 million," said Shermain Hardesty, director of the UC Small Farm Program and co-author of the study, in a statement.

The findings were presented this week at a hearing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is considering adoption of a national leafy-greens safety program.

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