For the second time this year, romaine lettuce growers are imposing measures they hope will end the recent string of E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks that were associated with their products last year. This latest action to strengthen food safety practices that will be required by romaine lettuce farms came Friday in a vote by the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Board of Directors.

California and Arizona’s Yuma Growing Region together account for 90 percent of the leafy greens grown the United States. Growers in both states signed on to Leafy Green Marketing Agreements after the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak associated with freshly bagged spinach to overcome doubts that major retail buyers were expressing about the industry at that time.

Last year, those doubts returned with back-to-back-to-back E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks that were linked to eating romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma region and in California. Those three outbreaks were also deadly events, killing six people out of the 297 confirmed E. coli cases that resulted from the outbreaks that began in the final days of 2017 and continued into early 2019.

Both LGMAs previously adopted new standards for their growers that were announced in January. Those involved equipment cleaning practices, proactive steps for flooding and high wind weather-related events, mandatory traceability measures, and buffers between growing areas and feedlots with 1,000 or more animals. California’s LGMA imposed the larger buffers.

The vote Friday, according to officials with the California LGMA, will strengthen its mandatory food safety practices for farms in order “to protect consumers and prevent future foodborne illness outbreaks.” 

“The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Board of Directors have adopted additional requirements to reduce risk when it comes to water used in growing lettuce and leafy greens,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA).

“This means that every box of leafy greens placed into commerce by a certified LGMA member will now be produced under new, more stringent requirements. We have effectively changed the way leafy greens are farmed.”

The new standards approved by the LGMA board are in direct response to investigations conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration into the 2018 E. coli outbreaks involving romaine lettuce. A group of leafy greens industry members, growers and scientists have been working for several months in an effort, facilitated by Western Growers, to update LGMA requirements for agricultural water use. The updates include specific directives such as no longer allowing the use of untreated surface water for overhead irrigation of leafy greens prior to harvest.

Horsfall explained the LGMA program has always required growers to test their water because it can easily carry pathogens. But the new requirements now include additional safeguards that ensure farmers categorize the source of their water; consider how and when water is applied to their crops; conduct testing to assure the water is safe for the intended uses; sanitize water if necessary; and verify that all of the precautions have been taken.

“The way to improve the safety of leafy greens is through the LGMA,” said Horsfall explaining this unique program exists only in the leafy green industry to enforce science-based food safety practices and includes certified government audits of farms to verify the required methods are being followed. The LGMA’s food safety practices meet, and often exceed, what is required under federal Produce Safety Rule regulations for other produce crops.

“For example, testing of irrigation water is currently not required by federal law,” said Horsfall. “But the actions taken by the LGMA board today (Friday) strengthen existing water testing and treatment requirements for 99 percent of the leafy greens grown in California.”

A grower who is also chairman of the LGMA board says farmers must take responsibility for the food they produce.

“Leafy greens farmers have an obligation to produce safe leafy greens,” said Dan Sutton, chairman of the LGMA and general manager of Pismo-Oceano Vegetable Exchange, a producer of lettuce and other vegetables near San Luis Obispo. “We are keenly aware of the tragic impacts of foodborne illness. This is why we are so passionately committed to producing the safest leafy greens possible. To validate this commitment and compliance with food safety practices, we participate in the LGMA program which requires mandatory government audits of our farms.”

The president of a Markon, a California company that distributes fresh produce for foodservice companies throughout the U.S. and Canada, says the LGMA is crucial for the future of the leafy greens industry.

“Markon and its members are committed to buying leafy greens from certified members of the LGMA,” said Markon president Tim York. “We believe the LGMA is the best tool we have to ensure consumer safety for leafy greens. I encourage all buyers of leafy greens to purchase only from LGMA members. I’d consider anything less both irresponsible and reckless.”

The LGMA will begin immediately to make sure everyone in the leafy greens community understands how to comply with the new requirements.

Additional information on specific changes to the LGMA food safety practices will be provided in the coming weeks and a webinar for retail and foodservice operations will be scheduled soon, according to the organization’s officials.

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