How much progress have we made to obtain safe leafy Greens?

The FDA found interesting trends of reoccurring strain, reoccurring region, and reoccurring concerns with adjacent lands’ potential impacts. The study concluded that it is reasonable to predict the repeated hazard in the California Central Coast (Salinas Valley) growing area from this pathogenic E. coli. The FSMA Produce Safety Rule requires the farmers to apply all reasonable measures needed to identify problems and not harvest produce that is likely to be contaminated.

The FDA encourages the agricultural community to participate in identifying the source of the reoccurring strain of pathogenic E. coli. In surveys, if the pathogenic E. coli is identified, the FDA recommends growers to execute industry-led root cause analyses to determine how the contamination likely occurred, and then implement appropriate prevention and verification measures.

Leafy Green Action Plan Update

The FDA also published an updated version of its Leafy Green Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) Action Plan.  While the FDA feels that significant progress has been made on the Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan over the past year, they understand that there is more work to be done.

Outbreaks have continued to happen, despite significant efforts in recent years. In the future, greater emphasis will be needed on complex issues, as adjacent land use, agricultural water, and understanding likely routes by which human pathogens may contaminate leafy greens.

Is There a Decline in Leafy Green Consumption?

The graph shows the consumption of romaine lettuce per capita in the last decade.

Consumers’ research saw a steady consumption of leafy greens until 2014, an increase in consumption is observed until 2016-2017. However, romaine lettuce sales have significantly declined in the last two years. The decline might be a result of the link of the product to several E. coli outbreaks. I would anticipate a further decline in 2020, as the confidence in the product keeps declining.

In several supermarkets, the romaine lettuce has a much smaller shelf space than before the outbreaks. This must be a worrisome trend for the leafy greens producers.

It is well-publicized that the CDC estimates that 60% of all food-related E. coli O157:H7illnesses are a result of the consumption of fresh produce, and consumers are getting worried.

Efforts by Growers

It is clear that the last thing lettuce farmers want is for people to get sick from their product. Lettuce farmers in California and Arizona have joined a stringent food safety program known as the LGMA. Under this program, farmers must follow required food safety practices that are much more stringent than those included under federal food safety laws for other produce items.

Farmers are required to be subject to mandatory water testing, and government auditors visit LGMA member farms about four times a year to make sure they are following all required practices. Farmers are working on continuously to improve food safety practices on their farms.

The farmers and their trade organizations funded millions of dollars in research to better understand food safety on the farm through the Center for Produce Safety.

Final thought

It is clear that the FDA and the farmers are putting a significant effort to prevent future outbreaks. Everyone wants an end to foodborne illnesses. Everybody can get an “A” for effort. However, the problem is not yet solved.  People continue to get sick due to the consumption of leafy greens.

Because the products do not have a kill step to eliminate the dangerous E. coli, it is discouraging to see how slow the progress is. There are no simple solutions to the problem because leafy greens are currently grown outdoors in the vicinity of cattle operations. Dangerous strains of E. coli persist in the environment.

Everyone is frustrated due to the lack of real progress in solving the leafy green situation, despite lots of efforts. We should all focus on what measures we can take to eliminate these outbreaks.

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