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My Tour with Foodborne Illness Victims Through the Leafy Greens Industry

Opinion

My life changed forever in June 1996, when my two little sisters were stricken with E. coli O157:H7 infections after eating “triple-washed, ready-to-eat” mesclun lettuce. At first, they suffered horrendous cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. While Chelsea soon recovered, Haylee — who was just three years old at the time — fell critically ill with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious kidney disorder that can result from E. coli infection.

Haylee spent three-and-a-half-months fighting for her life. She suffered retinal hemorrhages, pneumonia and rectal prolapse. A tennis-ball-sized brain hemorrhage necessitated emergency surgery, which caused blindness for weeks and left her with a lifelong visual deficiency. Haylee still has reduced kidney function, diabetes and a learning disability.

I was shocked to learn that the leafy greens implicated in my sisters’ illnesses had been grown at a farm not registered with the state and processed with unchlorinated water in an exposed stainless steel tub located less than 100 feet away from a cattle ranch. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that the well that supplied the wash water was 20 feet from a cattle pen, that the filter had been disconnected and that no bacterial testing was performed.

Activism and foodborne illness education became key to my recovery from this trauma. Today, I work for Marler Clark, the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of foodborne illness, and the underwriter of Food Safety News.

This past March I spoke at an FDA hearing in Portland, Oregon, about the importance of fully implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act. As luck would have it, after speaking, I shared a van ride back to Portland International Airport with Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Green Products Handlers Marketing Agreement (LGMA).

Mr. Horsfall applauded my support of the FSMA and my testimonial. He also told me about the LGMA and its support of the Food Safety Modernization Act. I was excited to hear about the mission of the organization and its commitment to raising the bar for food safety.

Scott explained he was developing a tour for victims of foodborne illness and their families to see the changes that have been made in California leafy greens production, and then he invited me to participate. I agreed to be included and was curious about what I would find visiting these farms and seeing the faces behind these products.

In the days before the tour I was not sure what I expected to see. My assumptions were that produce growers and handlers were more concerned with the business’ bottom line and that extra food safety standards were an expensive inconvenience. I worried that this tour was a marketing ploy and that the farmers would be insensitive to our stories.

I was very wrong.

The tour group consisted of victims of foodborne illness and their families along with the staff from STOP Foodborne Illness, a non-profit organization that works with foodborne illness victims. The group was there primarily to be shown the inner workings of the industry and to get a real feel for the role food safety plays in leafy green farming. Because of my personal connection with E. coli poisoning from California-grown lettuce, I was there to see the changes that had been made since my sisters were sick and to share their story.  The tour was in fact a personal and educational endeavor for me.  I needed reassurance that threats of pathogens in our produce were understood and, most importantly, being addressed.

Our tour started at Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange (POVE), a member of the LGMA. Dan Sutton, the general manager of POVE, was the first handler I met and really had the most impact on me.  He talked to the group about the LGMA and how seriously its members take food safety.  He was so touched by our stories that he became overcome with emotion. Sutton expressed his gratitude for our willingness to share our experiences and to advocate for safe food. He explained that distributing safe food was, in his words, “a moral obligation.” I was touched by how genuine and compassionate this man was. He seemed to understand the importance of food safety and the impact foodborne illness has on families.

We proceeded to Ikeda Brothers Farms (grower for POVE) in Oceano, and got to meet the Ikeda family and see their growing operation. Tom Ikeda, who operates the business, spoke candidly about the fact that he feeds his family and friends his produce, so the safety of the food is crucial and ultimately personal. Getting to put faces to this idea I had in my head of farmers helped me relate to them as individuals rather than a giant faceless corporation. It was truly humbling to see the fields and hear about the process.

We then visited Talley Farms, a member of the LGMA in Arroyo Grande, California. The company is operated by the third generation of the Talley family. The main message from Ryan Talley was that the company holds a very high standard for food safety and that although the LGMA deals exclusively with leafy green produce, Talley upholds the LGMA’s high standard for all their produce.  I was surprised to hear that food safety procedures and training translates to about 15 percent of their annual budget.

That evening our group had dinner with local farming families and I got some time to speak one-on-one with many of them. The general consensus among the LGMA members and growers was that they were happy we could join them and that the initial fears of our visit were diminished (that victims and their families would show up with feelings of vengeance).

Day two started with visiting Rancho Guadalupe in Santa Maria, California, where I got to see an iceberg lettuce harvest as well as an audit demonstration. Before entering the field, strict policies were explained in which we had to do things like remove our jewelry and wear hairnets — all in the name of food safety. The speed, skill and rhythm of the harvesting crew were astounding. I felt a lot more respect for the hard work of the crew and their skills after getting an up close view of the process. Two government auditors talked with our group and explained the things they looked for when visiting a farm, the questions that are asked and how detailed the process really is – one farm audit can last between 6 to 10 hours.

For the last leg of the tour, our group went back indoors, where we got to see the inner workings of a processing facility. Here we would see how bagged salads such as triple-washed mixes (much like what my sisters ate) were processed and put together for consumers. Before entering the Gold Coast Packing facility, we were given stringent guidelines which included no phones or cameras. I felt anxious about seeing how the produce was handled. I was ushered into a clearly new and sterile building in which I was able to observe the entirety of the processing from when the produce enters the facility up to how it’s packaged to be distributed.

The whole operation of making the products “ready-to-eat” was explained, as well as the company’s microbiological testing program. I had a multitude of questions about the washing process, the hygiene factors and everything in between. I was not easy on the food safety and quality assurance staff and they were more than happy to oblige.  I left the processing facility feeling more at ease with some “ready-to-eat” mixes knowing the high standards that went into the process (at least at Gold Coast Packing). Given my family’s experiences, however, I still don’t think I will be running out to eat them any time soon.

The tour wrapped up with a large roundtable discussion in which we met more leafy green growers, shippers, food safety staff, scientists and auditors. The stories the group members shared were incredibly moving, both to me and clearly to the food professionals, as many of them told me so afterward.

I gained a lot of insight on the tour and started to feel more empowered about my fight for food safety. Perhaps I wasn’t fighting this uphill battle alone. The industry that became the villain in my eyes after Haylee fell ill may not be as bad as I once thought. I was inspired by the hard work and dedication to raise the bar for food safety in the industry. Roxanne, a government auditor I met, told me she would think of Haylee when she was out in the fields. I was touched.

© Food Safety News
  • Amy Gosla

    Thank you, Samantha, for sharing your tour and for working to fight for food safety.

  • Ned Hamson

    Good news, as far as it goes – but we still need more auditors and inspectors to assure safety, as well as monitoring all that we now import.

  • Tara

    Experiences such as Samantha’s should propel everyone to engage with the farmers in their area, find farmers they know and trust, and buy from them. Or, grow your own garden. Are either of these alternatives 100% guaranteed not to result in a foodborne illness? Of course not. But neither is the FSMA. I’ll take my chances with my local farmer.

  • EvelynKrieger

    Are you suggesting that we don’t eat pre-washed greens?

  • Samantha Bernstein

    Thank you for reading the article and for all your feedback.

  • CA Leafy Greens LGMA

    Great article Samantha! We are very pleased that you came away from the tour with a new outlook on leafy greens and our farmers’ commitment to producing safe food.

    It wasn’t easy for anyone on this tour to share their own experiences with foodborne illness; but it made a huge impact on those of us who got to hear them.

    Here is a video featuring opinions of some of the other tour participants: http://youtu.be/91jiPo37xf8

  • Mike

    I work in the Vegetable industry and was moved by the article. My actual title is SVP Food Safety and Regualtory Affairs. I spend my days making sure our produce is the safest in the world. The entire industry is now changing to require a new, possibly higher standard of Food Safety called “Global Food Safety” or GFS. The difference is in multiple areas, but the area that I find reassuring is the area of microbial sampling(s). Irrigation water, rinse tanks, food packing and or preparation surfaces, harvest crates, and other areas. In most outbreaks, especially with multiple state there is generally some common area (what I call a multiplier) that leads to outbreaks. Often this could have been detected by the microbial testing.