California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Steps Up Efforts to Improve Safety
By April Ward, Leafy Green Marketing Agreement
On January 15, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared e. Coli outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce grown in the Salinas, CA region over and the agencies have lifted the consumer advisory. In a statement, the FDA said there is no longer a need for consumers to avoid romaine lettuce from Salinas.
“The industry is enforcing upon themselves even more stringent food safety requirements than were previously in place through the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA).
The statement noted that FDA and CDC have been tracking three outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce. Yesterday’s statement reads as follows: “Federal health officials are declaring two multi-state romaine lettuce outbreaks over. One of the outbreaks sickened 167 people in 27 states. The other outbreak, linked to Fresh Express salad kits, sickened 10 people in five states. There was also a third outbreak in Washington State that sickened 11 people. This outbreak has also been declared over.”
Since the consumer advisory was first issued on November 21, 2019 California leafy greens farmers have taken action to prevent future outbreaks.
“The industry is enforcing upon themselves even more stringent food safety requirements than were previously in place through the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a food safety program established in 2007 to address food safety issues concerning leafy greens.
“We need to prevent this from happening again,” said Steve Church of Church Brothers, a leading producer of romaine lettuce and a member of the Board of the California LGMA. “These outbreaks are devastating to our industry as well as to consumers and they absolutely must stop.”
At a recent meeting of the LGMA, leaders from throughout the California leafy greens community agreed it is industry’s responsibility to strengthen their mandatory food safety practices even further.
“We have to take control of our own destiny,” said Dan Sutton, a leafy greens producer who serves as Chairman of the LGMA. “The LGMA exists to establish food safety standards for farming leafy greens. We need a focused industry-wide effort to figure out what’s happening in the environment where we farm. The members of the LGMA are committed to making real changes to improve the safety of our product.”
The LGMA acknowledged all of the work being done by FDA to help determine the exact cause of recent outbreaks. Details of the investigation are outlined in yesterday’s statement but, to date, investigators have been unable to determine the source of the outbreaks.
According to the FDA, “Our investigation is ongoing, and we are doing everything possible to find the source or sources of contamination. The investigation into how this contamination occurred is important, so romaine growers can implement measures that will prevent future contamination and illnesses.”
“The leafy greens community is extremely motivated to get to the bottom of this and we want to be more involved,” said Jan Berk of San Miguel Produce who serves as vice-chairman of the LGMA. “The FDA investigators are not farmers. They don’t know what’s going on in our fields the way we do. We are the ones who need to fix this.”
Work is already underway to do just that.
“The LGMA is currently conducting a systematic overhaul of the food safety practices included in our program,” explained Horsfall. “We’re working with our industry partner Western Growers to conduct an open, transparent review of the required food safety practices under the LGMA. We will be bringing in outside expertise so that we can incorporate new knowledge and research.”
Additionally, a special meeting hosted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is being planned for February 4 in Salinas. Growers are being invited to participate in a discussion about research opportunities available through a broad study that will monitor environmental conditions in California that may be contributing to outbreaks.
“Our goal is to work in conjunction with leafy greens growers and with the U.S. FDA to resolve the problems that continue to impact romaine,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “The LGMA and the entire leafy greens industry has been extremely cooperative in these efforts. We all want to see an end to these outbreaks so that consumers can have confidence in eating leafy greens. We owe this to our consumers and to our growers.”
Horsfall emphasized that actions being taken by the LGMA demonstrate the industry’s commitment to making changes in their food safety practices.
“The benefit of the LGMA system is that when we make changes to our requirements, they are implemented on thousands of farms that produce over 90 percent of leafy greens grown in the U.S.,” he said. “Government auditors will then verify growers are following the new practices through mandatory government audits. No other food safety program in the world has this capability.”