Farmers Devastated by Latest Romaine Lettuce Outbreak

Problem Lettuce Centers On Salinas.

All Other Growing Areas Deemed Safe

Note: Video and graphic resources supporting this press release are available here.

Today’s announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of expanding illnesses in the E. Coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with romaine lettuce is being met with frustration and heartbreak by California lettuce farmers.

The root cause of this and other recent outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce remain a mystery despite a concentrated focus on safety by leafy greens producers and government regulators.

“No one is more frustrated than the producers of leafy greens that outbreaks continue to be associated with our products,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a food safety program created in 2007 to prevent foodborne illnesses caused by lettuce and leafy greens.

“We are devastated as a leafy greens community when this happens,” said Dan Sutton, a farmer from Oceano, CA. “Our thoughts go to those affected by this outbreak. But that’s why we want to continue to work with governmental agencies to learn why this is happening so that we can improve.”

According to FDA and CDC, consumers are advised not to eat any of the specific products included in recent salad mix recalls and to avoid romaine lettuce from Salinas. At this time, romaine lettuce that was harvested outside of the Salinas region has not been implicated in this outbreak investigation.

“Right now, romaine is being harvested in Arizona and southern California growing areas that are not part of this outbreak and harvest is nearly complete in the Salinas Valley,” explained Horsfall.  “Public health agencies have stated that only product from the Salinas area is included in the consumer advisory. Romaine producers will be working closely with their customers to make sure all product from Salinas is removed from marketing channels, but romaine from any other growing area is safe for consumption.”

This means that romaine from the following regions is safe: Yuma, Phoenix, Southern Arizona, Northern Arizona, Northern California, Santa Maria, Southern California, Imperial Valley, Coachella, and Central Valley. Product from Mexico and other states is also cleared. Hydroponically and greenhouse-grown romaine is also not implicated in the outbreak.

“For the past year, producers have been voluntarily labeling romaine lettuce with information on harvest date and growing region,” explained Horsfall.  “Today, this information provides consumers, retailers and foodservice operators with assurances the products they are purchasing have been identified as safe for consumption. We are hopeful these actions by industry will minimize withdrawal of safe product from stores and restaurants and reduce food waste.”

The current outbreak is occurring at a time when the production of leafy greens in central California is transitioning to growing regions in southern California and Arizona. It appears that romaine lettuce involved in this outbreak was likely harvested in the Salinas Valley growing area in September and October.

“We are very hopeful that what we learn from these recent outbreaks will help us to strengthen our food safety practices,” said Horsfall, who emphasized that since an outbreak linked to romaine last Thanksgiving, California and Arizona leafy greens producers made several changes to the food safety practices required of farmers. The changes include updated protocols for irrigation and increased buffer zones between leafy greens farms and adjacent animal operations.

A very stringent set of food safety practices is enforced on leafy greens farms through the LGMA system. Horsfall explained that the role of the LGMA is to verify through government inspection that leafy greens producers are following a set of food safety practices on the farm. Each LGMA member is subject to 4 to 5 on-farm audits each year that are conducted by government officials. The LGMA is the most comprehensive food safety program for fresh produce in the world.

“As farmers, we never want outbreaks to happen,” stressed Sutton, who serves as the chairman of the LGMA. “We will continue to do everything we possibly can to improve our required practices, to improve the way we farm leafy greens and to make sure we can improve the safety of these products we are putting out to our consumers.

“The situation is heartbreaking,” continued Sutton. “I have a very young family and the products we grow go to my family’s dinner table. My children consume the very same products we are sending out to consumers across the nation. That’s something I think about every day.”

The LGMA is working closely with public health agencies and have volunteered to assist with investigations in any way possible. The organization is also working with other initiatives to conduct research to learn more about how romaine is the source of outbreaks. They invite the public, media and government officials to learn more about their program and the practices required of leafy green producers at www.lgma.ca.gov or by contacting them directly at (916) 441-1240.

Product Recall Awareness

Social Media Can Hurt a Company

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Product recall coverage has a publicity element. California Ag Today recently spoke with Caitlin McGrath, national product recall and contamination risk consultant with Lockton Insurance Brokers, about the importance of the topic.

Caitlin McGrath, with Lockton Insurance Brokers.

Product recall coverage’s publicity element can be adverse, with the accusation of contamination coming into play.

“The example I always use is a mom who puts online a food item that made her kid sick, and this gets shared 100,000 times. You get calls from your customers, supermarkets, and drug stores asking you to stop sending your product,” McGrath said.

If products are not selling, that can be a very significant loss.

“Most recalls are voluntary. They have to be reported to the FDA if they are going to cause bodily injury or property damage,” McGrath said.

She suggests having an internal communication and external communication setup. Be aware of what testing labs you are going to use, what PR companies you are going to use.

Many times, companies try to execute their recall and are not ready for the customer demands.

“Sometimes customers are coming to them and saying, ‘you owe us all this money,’ ” McGrath said. “It is important to have the plans for the whole logistics of the recall.”

Importance of Recall Insurance

Brokers Can help Growers Minimize Losses

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

California Ag Today recently met with Caitlin McGrath, the national product recall and contamination risk consultant with Lockton Insurance Brokers. Insurance is needed for California growers in case of recalls and contaminations. Lockton feels the most important part of finding the right recall insurance is the consulting element.

Caitlin McGrath, Lockton Insurance Brokers

“Now, what I think is the most important part of insurance coverage is the consulting element,” McGrath said.

These are consulting services that are available if you are a recall or contamination insurance purchaser that allows you access to specialists during and before incidents. One of the struggles that McGrath is noticing is that the quality assurance folks she speaks to are not insurance buyers.

“They are the ones finding out the information about all these services that are available, and it’s not always getting down into the field,” she said.

Preparation in the case of recalls or contamination is important.

“Fan Favorite, as I call them, do a lot of really great work on behalf of a lot of our clients,” McGrath said.

Some of that work can be Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) training and mock recalls. Financial costs are rising due to the increasing number of recalls.

“We believe that that’s the effect of [the Federal Information Security Management Act or] FISMA. They are getting larger in financial cost, and that has to do with the amount that is being recalled and the implications in terms of publicity,” McGrath said.

Recall plans need to cover all of the elements, not just mock recalls.

“The internal message is just as important and knowing who is going to handle what within an organization. Planning and practicing that is really critical to help mitigate if there is a problem,” McGrath explained.

“Having directives around the use of social media as an employee of an organization is very important, but just one department not talking to another is going to have a huge part in this,” she said.

Buying product contamination insurance is expensive, but necessary. Since McGrath started, the number of brokers has nearly tripled.

“I think that not having insurance is now the outlier, so I think the majority of folks are still buying,” she said.

Wawona Packing Co. Takes Precautionary Step of Voluntarily Recalling Products

Wawona Packing Company of Cutler, Calif. is voluntarily recalling certain lots of whole peaches (white and yellow), nectarines (white and yellow), plums and plots packed between June 1, 2014 through July 12, 2014 due to the potential of the products being contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Wawona Packing has notified retailers of the specific lots being recalled. No other products are impacted by this recall. To our knowledge health officials have not linked any illnesses to this recall.

Listeria monocytogenes, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and other with weakened immune systems. Although healthy individuals may suffer only from short0term symptoms such as high fever, sever headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

The recalled products were shipped directly to retailers and wholesalers who resell the products. Because we do not know the locations of the companies that purchased the products from our direct customers, the company is issuing a nationwide recall. Consumers can identify the recalled products by the information on www.wawonapacking.com.

Anyone who has the recalled products in their possession should not consume them and should discard them. Consumers with questions may contact Wawona Packing at 1-888-232-9912, M-F, 8am – 11pm ET, or visit www.wawonapacking.com for a copy of this press release.

Wawona Packing has already notified its business customers and requested that they remove the recalled products from commerce. Wawona Packing is voluntarily recalling these products in consultation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The recall was initiated based on internal company testing. The company shut down the implicated packing lines, retrofitted equipment, sanitized the facility and retested. Subsequent daily test results have been negative.

“We are aware of no illnesses related to the consumption of these products,” said Brent Smittcamp, President of Wawona Packing Co. “By taking the precautionary step of recalling product, we will minimize even the slightest risk to public health, and that is our priority.”