February 17, 2020

Leafy Greens Industry Frustrated By Recurring E. coli Outbreaks

Will there be another E. coli outbreak linked to leafy greens this year? Since 2017, there has been at least one multistate E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce every year. Outbreaks linked to packaged salads and other leafy greens go back to 2010. And every year, the outbreak is unsolved, with the FDA and CDC unable to pinpoint where the contaminated greens originated. The leafy greens industry is frustrated.

Leafy Greens Industry Frustrated By Recurring E. coli Outbreaks

The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement group (LGMA) adopted new rules for its members last year, asking them to increase the buffer zone between between farm fields and animal feedlots, to clean equipment daily, to improve traceability, and to review the impact of severe weather on crops. Growers should now categorize the source of water used on their fields, test irrigation water to see if it’s safe, to sanitize the water if needed, and won’t be able to use untreated surface water for overhead irrigation in the 21 days before harvest.

Unfortunately, those measures did not prevent three E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks last year that were linked to romaine lettuce. Those outbreaks sickened more than 200 people in the U.S. and Canada, and hospitalized at least 60.

So in 2020, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is conducting a “systemic overhaul” of its food safety practices. CDEO Scott Horsfall said in a statement, “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.”

Vice-chairwoman of the LGMA Jan Berk said, “The leafy greens community is extremely motivated to get to the bottom of this and we want to be more involved. 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.”

In fact, a piece in The Packer stated that some in the industry thinks that the FDA is not sharing emerging data in real time and isn’t bringing industry experts into the outbreak investigations early enough. Trevor Suslow, Vice President of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association said, “I understand and appreciate that there’s some policy reasons for that, but it just absolutely has to get fixed because we’re not figuring out (root causes of outbreaks) and they certainly are not figuring it out.”

Experts in the industry want to see the FDA consult preventive experts early in investigations. Confidentiality restrictions may prevent some communication, but some believe the FDA isn’t responsive enough to the industry.

We’ll see if there’s another leafy greens E. coli outbreak this year. Meanwhile, consumers should pay attention to recalls and outbreak announcements to protect themselves and their families and follow best food safety practices in the kitchen.

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