Eight times since 2017, growers of leafy greens, especially those producing Romaine lettuce, have been rocked by outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7.  The pathogen associated with the intestines of cows rode in on the greens, causing sicknesses, sending people to hospitals for treatment of kidney ailment, and, oh yes, killing seven who made the mistake of eating a salad.

With more care or just plain luck, the private Leafy Green Marketing Agreement and the public Food and Drug Administration are experiencing a break in E. coli outbreaks that has lasted about two years.

The LGMA and FDA recently volunteered updates on their actions to stop E. Coli outbreaks from their green fields.

For the California LGMA, they’ve embarked on a 2-year “Romaine Test & Learn” study. The food safety study has growers turning over their pathogen test data for analysis by LGMA.

When the 2-year study got underway this past July, LMGA Chair Jan Berk said “test and learn” was the most significant change made by LMGA since its inception.  The data collection program includes both pre and post-harvest testing.

“This program will allow our members’ testing data to collectively provide moanful, aggregated data to understand potential risks better,” Berk said.

LMGA’s CEO Tim York said the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program inspired the Romaine Test and Learn.  “The airline safety model shows ua that sharing data can improve safety,” York said.

LGMA did not make “Test Learn” mandatory for its grower members, but more than 90 percent enlisted voluntarily.  California LGMA has partnered with Western Growers and its “GreenLink” data sharing and analysis platform.

Growers in California and Arizona growing areas established LMGAs for both states after the devastating 2006 outbreak involving fresh spinach. The LMGAs say that even one outbreak involving their products is too many.

Meanwhile, this week, the FDA issued its progress report on making sure greens are safe to eat.

“Leafy greens are among the most widely consumed vegetables and an important part of an overall healthy diet,” FDA reported. “However, while millions of servings are consumed safely every day, leafy greens have been repeatedly associated with illnesses caused by Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), the most common of which is E. coli O157:H7. FDA is committed to breaking this cycle of reoccurring outbreaks.

“Over the last several years, the FDA and partners in the public and private sectors have worked to enhance the safety of leafy greens through the development and implementation of the Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan,” it continues. “This work includes prioritized inspections, focused sampling, stakeholder engagement and collaboration, data sharing, root cause investigations, and advancements in the science of detection and prevention.”

“Collectively, this work has expanded our knowledge about how and why outbreaks linked to leafy greens have occurred, guiding and informing the evolution of the action plan over the years. Still, we know that we cannot fix the issue of leafy green contamination on our own. Industry leadership and collaboration among growers, processors, retailers, state partners, and the broader agricultural community are critical to preventing food-borne illness.”

This link goes to the FDA table that provides the approaches for three priority areas: Prevention, Response, and Addressing Knowledge Gaps, as well as accomplishments that have been made since the action plan launched in March 2020.  It is updated and current as of October 2023.

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