‘Frustration, heartbreak:’ E. coli outbreak draws grower response
With yet another E. coli outbreak linked to romaine rocking the produce industry, groups representing leafy greens growers say they are "devastated" and the situation is "unacceptable."
The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement said the outbreak is “being met with frustration and heartbreak by California lettuce farmers.”
The cause of repeated E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine or leafy greens — at least seven since 2010, killing six people — remain a mystery despite an intense focus by the industry and federal regulators.
“No one is more frustrated than the producers of leafy greens that outbreaks continue to be associated with our products,” Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said in a news release.
The Food and Drug Administration has asked the industry to remove romaine from Salinas, Calif., from the supply chain, and retailers, restaurants and other businesses to stop selling it. Consumers have been advised to toss or return Salinas romaine to where they bought it.
“We are devastated as a leafy greens community when this happens,” Dan Sutton, general manager of the Pismo-Oceano Vegetable Exchange and chairman of the California LGMA, said in the release. “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.”
Horsfall said harvest has moved from the Salinas area to Southern California and Yuma, Ariz. The industry has concentrated research efforts on the transition from California to Arizona and back, because most of the outbreaks occur at those times.
The FDA, which announced its plans to start a year-long romaine sampling program for E. coli and salmonella just days before the current outbreak, also plans to target crop transition periods.
“We are very hopeful that what we learn from these recent outbreaks will help us to strengthen our food safety practices,” Horsfall said in the release.
In the year since FDA removed all romaine products from the marketplace leading up to Thanksgiving 2018, the California and Arizona LGMAs have increased buffer zones around livestock operations and set overhead irrigation stop dates before harvest.
“As farmers, we never want outbreaks to happen,” Sutton said in the release. “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 Grower Shipper Association of Central California, Salinas, which also represents romaine growers, said the industry is working to remove all Salinas romaine from the supply chain.
“It is unacceptable for any consumer to suffer with this illness,” according to a statement from the group. “While many have worked hard to make needed food safety improvements, it is starkly obvious that we must do more.”
The grower shipper group has retained David Acheson to “identify and prioritize next steps toward better solutions as well as work collaboratively with government health agencies and other food safety experts.”
Acheson, the former Associate Commissioner of Food for the FDA, heads The Acheson Group, a consulting agency.
“We said that many have worked hard to improve, and this is true — we have strengthened our food safety practices which are verified through mandatory government audits and new studies are now underway to advance new science and solutions at the Center for Produce Safety,” according to the grower shipper group’s statement.
“This diligent work should not be diminished but we must do more and we must do it faster.
“To those who are suffering with this illness and their families and loved ones, we know our apologies aren't enough, as heartfelt as they are.”
Trevor Suslow, vice president of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association, said that PMA is advising members to watch for updates because the area targeted by health investigators may expand.
All 40 cases have been linked to the E. coli strain found in a Maryland patient’s unopened Ready Pac Caeasar salad kit, according to an e-mail from Suslow.
“The investigation has indicated that the outbreak is not limited to any one form of romaine lettuce and may include chopped, processed and hearts of romaine.