Task Force Focus: Making Leafy Greens Even Safer

Although the recent multi-state E. coli outbreak associated with romaine lettuce from the Yuma region is over, we are just beginning the process of learning how romaine came to be the cause of the outbreak and, more importantly, how such a tragedy can be prevented in the future.

The first meetings of the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force were held June 5 and 6 in Salinas, CA and are an excellent example of collaboration among industry and government to share ideas and solve issues. The purpose of this Task Force is to sharpen food safety systems throughout the entire leafy greens supply chain from production, to packaging, processing and distribution.

The June 5 meeting was attended by 20 members of the new Task Force’s Steering Committee including representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.  During the second day of meetings, the steering committee was joined by 50 additional stakeholders from throughout the produce industry and buying community. All attendees participated in a wide-ranging discussion on the outbreak, the investigation, traceability and potential root cause hypotheses.

The Task Force agreed that smaller breakout groups will focus on key areas including: analysis of weather/climatic/growing conditions and other farm factors; traceability; and communication with government agencies.

The Task Force plans to meet again to review progress in late July. Meanwhile, discussions about many of the same issues addressed by the Task Force continued as part of the Center for Produce Safety’s Research Symposium held in Charlotte, NC this week.

This recent outbreak involving romaine is an event that has touched many throughout the produce industry. Only by working together will clear answers be known. That’s why this Task Force is designed as a joint effort among growers, shippers, food safety experts, researchers, retailers, restaurants, government and consumer advocates.  To ensure inclusiveness and transparency, a website has been established at  www.leafygreensfoodsafety.org.  Interested parties can sign up to receive email updates about the Task Force’s progress.

More participation is welcomed and valuable since the Task Force is looking at the entire leafy greens supply chain.  We need to work with those who can help identify and make improvements in what happens after the product leaves the farm as well as what happens on the farm.

As for food safety on the farm, the LGMA is committed to this effort and to finding answers. We know a lot about leafy greens food safety. The LGMA was formed in 2007 as an unprecedented commitment to protecting public health. More than 50 billion servings of leafy greens are safely grown every year under the LGMA system in California and Arizona. There is no other program in the produce industry that is more rigorous when it comes to on-farm food safety practices.

The strength of the LGMA is that if we learn how and where problems may be occurring, we can quickly change required food safety practices and make them part of the mandatory government verification audits that occur on leafy greens farms.

Simply put, we believe in our processes and the people involved in the LGMA. And we believe we can help make leafy greens even safer. We must.

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