In response to the E. coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce, growers’ groups say they are using “existing systems” to asses food safety programs. Government investigators say there are a couple of obvious actions that would make a significant difference right now. Both boil down labels.

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“When I walk into a grocery store and I see a bag of lettuce and it says ‘Produce of USA,’ do I know it’s from Yuma? No,” said FDA’s Stic Harris during a telephone news conference Friday. 

Only romaine from the Yuma, AZ, growing region is implicated in the current outbreak, according to warnings from FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two agencies teamed up for the Friday news conference because of the “high public interest” in the outbreak, which has sickened 98 people across 22 states. 

In addition to more informative labels for consumers, improvements to other labels — which consumers rarely, if ever, see — would virtually guarantee faster supply chain traceback, which is crucial during outbreaks and recalls. 

Detailed codes on labels for harvest containers and boxes used by packers, brokers and retail/restaurant distribution centers would slash the traceback time, according to Harris, who is director of the Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network at the Food and Drug Administration.

Such labeling would allow for tracking of fresh produce literally from the specific field where it was grown all the way to the specific grocery stores and restaurants where the pubic has access to it. Known as traceability labeling, the concept has been a hot topic in produce circles since the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak traced to fresh spinach from California.

A coalition of produce industry stakeholders, ranging from independent farmers to the largest grocery retailers in the country, joined to develop and launch the Produce Traceability Initiate. The system is voluntary, though, and many of the thousands of fresh produce companies have not adopted it, usually citing the higher costs of generating the more detailed labels.

The view from the leafy green fields
We take food safety very seriously and each incident gives us more data to analyze so we can refine our practices, according to a statement from the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (AZ LGMA). 

The AZ LGMA is a voluntary organization that works in conjunction with the California LGMA and both states’ agriculture departments to ensure members meet self-imposed food safety requirements. Friday’s post from the Arizona organization emphasized that the FDA has not determined where in the supply chain the E. coli contamination occurred, though it has determined one of the implicated growers.

FDA officials on Friday named Harrison Farms Inc. of Yuma, AZ, as the supplier of whole-head romaine to an Alaska prison where eight inmates have been confirmed with E. coli infections. Their illnesses were caused by the same strain of E. coli that has infected 90 people who ate pre-chopped romaine.

“All of the lettuce in question from this farm (Harrison Farms) was harvested during March 5-16 and is past its 21-day shelf life. Because the growing season in the Yuma region is at its end, the farm is not growing any lettuce at this time,” the FDA reported.

“Most of the illnesses in this outbreak are not linked to romaine lettuce from this farm. The agency is investigating dozens of other fields as potential sources of the chopped romaine lettuce.”

Harrison Farms does not appear to have a website. Bloomberg’s profile of the farm identifies it as a private food manufacturing and distributing company serving individuals, small businesses, and corporations. 

The Arizona leafy greens organization identifies Harrison Farms as “active and engaged in the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, and highly regarded for their compliance with food safety practices.”

Statements from the Arizona group and the California leafy greens organization both say their members follow strict food safety protocols. Both organizations also say the ongoing outbreak is an opportunity to improve those practices.

“… with this new information identifying a farm, the produce industry can begin to focus our attention on learning how romaine from the Yuma, AZ, region became a vehicle in this tragic outbreak,” the AZ LGMA statement said. 

“Food safety is our top priority and the produce industry has existing systems in place that will allow us to examine this issue comprehensively so that necessary changes can be incorporated into food safety programs utilized throughout the leafy greens industry.”

Leafy green makes lots of green
A November 2017 report from the University of Arizona says lettuce and other greens bring in about $2 billion annually to the state. 

The study also found Yuma County ranked second among 429 U.S. counties for harvesting lettuce and spinach acreage. Leafy greens have accounted for an average of 17 percent of the Arizona’s agricultural receipts every year since 2010. 

When all varieties of lettuce grown in Arizona are included in the calculation, the state ships about 1 billion pounds of lettuce a month from November through March, according to the university report. Arizona ranks second only to California in terms of overall U.S. lettuce production, as well as romaine production. 

Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California LGMA, said Friday that he wasn’t sure off the top of his head about the tonnage of romain shipped out of California. He did, however, confirm that the Golden Gate State is the No. 1 romaine producing state.

“As for volume, according to the U.S. Census for Agriculture, in 2012 California produced 73 percent of the romaine in the U.S., while Arizona produced 24 percent,” Horsfall said.

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