LGMA plans ‘overhaul’ of food safety rules in wake of outbreaks

LGMA plans ‘overhaul’ of food safety rules in wake of outbreaks

E. coli outbreaks linked to California romaine over, but investigations continue, and growers are pledging stricter guidelines for leafy greens.

On Jan. 15, when the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared two outbreaks over (a third one was over in mid-December), the industry outlined plans for change.

California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement CEO Scott Horsfall said the group is conducting a “systemic overhaul” of its food safety practices.

“We’re working with our industry partner Western Growers to conduct an open, transparent review of the required food safety practices under the LGMA,” Horsfall said in a news release. “We will be bringing in outside expertise so that we can incorporate new knowledge and research.”

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

At a recent California LGMA meeting, leaders agreed stricter food safety practices are required.

“We need a focused industry-wide effort to figure out what’s happening in the environment where we farm,” Dan Sutton, general manager of the Pismo-Oceano Vegetable Exchange and chairman of the California LGMA, said in the release. “The members of the LGMA are committed to making real changes to improve the safety of our product.” 

 A Feb. 4 meeting hosted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture in Salinas will focus on research opportunities available through a study monitoring environmental conditions that may be contributing to the outbreaks.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross said the state is working with growers and the FDA, to resolve issues.

“The LGMA and the entire leafy greens industry has been extremely cooperative in these efforts,” Ross said in the release. “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.” 

“These outbreaks are devastating to our industry as well as to consumers and they absolutely must stop,” Steve Church of Church Brothers, and a California LGMA board member, said in the release.

E. coli investigation

Investigations by federal and state authorities have not found the three specific E. coli strains identified in victims of the three outbreaks.

The FDA on Jan. 15 reported the fields of a grower who supplied romaine to distributors in all three outbreaks yielded no answer to the source of the outbreaks. By the time investigators traced supplies to the grower, the season was over, according to the FDA, and no product was available.

Water, soil and compost samples were tested; results were negative for the three E. coli strains. The FDA reported that E. coli was detected in a soil sample, but it was “of low risk to people” and unrelated to the outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared two of the outbreaks over on Jan. 15; Seattle-area health officials reported another one with 11 patients who ate romaine at Evergreens restaurants was over in mid-December.

The largest of the three outbreaks triggered a pre-Thanksgiving advisory from the FDA to avoid Salinas romaine. The CDC reported 167 people from 27 states were involved in the outbreak; two patients in Canada were also reported. An outbreak linked to Fresh Express brand Sunflower Crisp Chopped Salad Kits, which involved 10 cases, was also declared over Jan. 15.

“As part of FDA’s ongoing efforts to understand and prevent foodborne illnesses linked to leafy greens, the FDA will conduct a root cause investigation,” according the agency’s Jan. 15 notice. “The investigation will be conducted throughout this year’s romaine lettuce planting, growing, and harvesting season.”

Related stories:

Three E. coli outbreaks have a Salinas romaine grower in common

Fresh Express romaine in Wisconsin tests positive for E. coli

Seattle E. coli patients recover; investigation continues