What you don’t know about November’s romaine lettuce scare

To anyone outside the fresh produce supply chain, the recent romaine lettuce E. coli scare may have felt like a routine outbreak. But anyone on the inside knows: this one was different.*

Slippery slope

First, a little context. When a product is removed from the marketplace, the FDA assigns it one of four classifications depending on its potential for bodily harm: Class I, Class II, Class III, or withdrawal, which is typically voluntary. Most folks along the supply chain have a layer of insurance for if a recall or withdrawal occurs.

But when the news broke that romaine lettuce was carrying E. coli and had made several people ill, the FDA and CDC did not issue a recall or withdrawal. They simply asked everyone in the supply chain to stop harvesting and to pull product from shelves and for consumers to throw out any romaine in their refrigerators. Without a recall or withdrawal, the request didn’t trigger insurance claims, but the farming community still had to throw away product, whether it was contaminated or not, and without hope of compensation.

The result? Fresh market produce started descending a slippery slope that’s going to be detrimental to the industry.

A recent history of food safety

Like any protocol, food safety has improved in fits and starts through history. A run of food-borne illnesses in the 2000s revealed weaknesses in the supply chain, compelling both federal laws and industry rules and regulations to tighten. Researchers tested and studied potential vectors for food-borne illnesses. On the farming side, we saw site selection become critical.

For instance, we don’t grow vegetables downstream from a pig farm, cattle ranch, or open pasture with a concentrated animal feeding operation. Whether via runoff or wind, mice or squirrels, they can contaminate our field. What’s more, once a product from the field gets to the processing plant, it can contaminate other products.

Remember how the virus spread in the movie Outbreak? For those of us in farming and processing, that’s what our worst-case scenario looks like. With our mature farming and distribution systems, one acre of E. coli-tainted romaine can be distributed across North America and beyond.

The last thing we growers want is for our hard work to result in somebody getting sick. In fact, we spend a significant amount of time implementing rules passed down through the U.S. government’s Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), including standards the food and farming community has to adhere to, as well as safety metrics from our customers. To get and keep their business, we have to be GFSI-compliant (Global Food Safety Initiative) and are audited every year. We’ve also set up marketing orders with the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) and the Arizona Leafy Greens Food Safety Committee (AZLGMA), some of which are stricter than what the federal government and our customers require. We’ve imposed and agreed to all of these to ensure against anyone becoming ill from food originating on our farms.

Smoking gun—or—needle in a haystack

Back to the romaine story. Though the FDA has identified one farm with E. coli-contaminated water on the Central Coast as a source, they say “our traceback work suggests that additional romaine lettuce shipped from other farms could also likely be implicated in the outbreak.” They know the timing of people getting sick because only certain areas of California were producing during that time, but they still haven’t pinpointed the origin of the outbreak. Why? If I send one acre of romaine to a processing plant, it will typically be combined with other farmers’ acres into a big blend that’s packaged into individual salads. If you eat an individual salad, there could be 15 growers represented on your plate, spread apart by 500 miles or even more. Multiple that by 40-50 million pounds of leafy greens harvested weekly in the Salinas Valley alone, and you have quite a mystery to untangle.

As growers, we feel like we’re doing everything possible, based on the science that identifies potential vectors for contamination, without knowing what the smoking gun is at any given moment. Each outbreak shows a little something new about contamination. Water is a huge vector, like when harvesting crews wash their hands while cutting. And we respond and improve in every way possible. But we can’t fix what we don’t yet understand or see.

Keeping your food safe

Many industries have “kill steps” to eradicate pathogens – think pasteurization – but fresh produce isn’t one of them, due to the delicate and time-sensitive nature of the product itself. But even though we as farmers can’t fully cure the issue of mass contamination, we as consumers can do our best to minimize the risk of foodborne illness at home.

At Spinaca, we’ve always believed in empowering consumers with tips and tools for handling fresh produce at home, from storage and cooking to clean-up. Developed in consultation with the FDA, CDC, and fightbac.org, our Good Kitchen Practices™ are essential to keep handy as you cook and bake this month and beyond.

*As of January 9, 2019, the CDC reports that the outbreak appears to be over. Contaminated romaine that made people sick in this outbreak should no longer be available on the market. FDA will continue its investigation into potential sources and contributing factors that led to the outbreak in order to inform future prevention efforts.

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