Leafy Greens Food Safety: Change is Already Happening

Nearly 100 people gathered last week in Yuma, AZ for this summer’s second meeting of the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force created to prevent foodborne illness events like the recent multi-state outbreak of E. Coli O157:H7 associated with romaine lettuce.

The Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force meeting was attended by growers and shippers including members of the California and Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements. Representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and state departments of agriculture in California and Arizona also participated also participated, as did foodservice and retail businesses and consumer advocacy groups like STOP Foodborne Illness and the Pew Charitable Trust.

We are all focused on learning everything we can from this tragedy so that stringent food safety practices already in place throughout the leafy greens supply chain can be strengthened. Public health agencies continue their investigation into how romaine lettuce grown in Yuma came to be the source of the outbreak. Both industry and government have developed some hypotheses.

To examine a variety of potential causes, the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force formed five Working Groups, each assigned to consider a specific topic area. A description of each working group and a complete list of members is available here.  It’s an impressive assembly and each group is led by one of the produce industry’s most experienced food safety experts. Over the past few weeks the five Working Groups have been reviewing data provided by government investigators and considering possible factors that may have contributed to the contamination of romaine lettuce in the Yuma region.

The result is a list of initial recommendations presented by each Working Group during last week’s Task Force meeting. A summary of the recommendations is available here and more detailed information will be included in future LGMA blog posts.

This is just the beginning.  More recommendations are to come, particularly as the government recently provided new data on canal water samples. More information is anticipated as investigators continue to gather environmental samples from the region. But the industry is not waiting for more information before it acts.  They are moving forward with changes now as preparations for planting begin in the desert growing areas that supply our winter lettuces and vegetables.

While there’s much we still don’t know, what we do know is this–the leafy greens industry today operates under the most advanced food safety practices based on the best available science. Over 90 percent of leafy greens consumed in the U.S. are produced in California and Arizona under the LGMA’s stringent food safety program which verifies through government audit that a set of mandatory food safety practices are being followed on leafy greens farms. Under the LGMA programs, over 130 million servings of leafy greens are safely grown in California and Arizona every day.

But we all recognize that even one foodborne illness associated with our product is unacceptable and we are committed to further improving the safety of leafy greens. That is why the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force was formed. In fact, it’s why the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was formed over ten years ago. The system may not be perfect, but the LGMA is clearly the best and quickest way to make and enforce changes that immediately affect an entire commodity group.

One of the greatest benefits of the LGMA system is that the required food safety practices, or metrics, can be updated at any time. Many of the recommendations provided by the Task Force last week will be implemented through the LGMA system. The process has already begun. The Arizona and California LGMAs’ Technical Committees have moved quickly to review and recommend changes to the metrics. Significant changes to the LGMA metrics should be adopted by the Boards of these two organizations by the end of August and improved practices will become part of the mandatory government audits for leafy greens farms in California and Arizona this coming winter.

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