Part Two: LGMA and Western Growers Association Offer Advice in the Wake of the Latest FDA and CDC E. coli Outbreak Warning
CALIFORNIA - The season for giving and gratitude is becoming one of concern for a core aspect of our industry: romaine lettuce growers. While I am thankful that we are not struggling under a wide net cast out over the entire category, it isn’t without hopefully watching for a quick recovery by those on all sides affected by the most recent E. coli scare. But action and resilience continue to ring in the tone of the industry as it already works to answer the call of this challenge.
“No one is more frustrated than the producers of leafy greens that outbreaks continue to be associated with our products,” Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), said in a press release. “For the past year, producers have been voluntarily labeling romaine lettuce with information on harvest date and growing region. Today, this information provides consumers, retailers, and foodservice operators with assurances the products they are purchasing have been identified as safe for consumption. We are hopeful these actions by industry will minimize withdrawal of safe product from stores and restaurants and reduce food waste.”
As we reported yesterday, a recall announced by the USDA on November 21, 2019 shared that Missa Bay, LLC had recalled approximately 75,233 pounds of salad products that contain meat or poultry because the lettuce ingredient may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The products recalled have “Use By” dates ranging from October 29, 2019, to November 1, 2019, according to the FDA and CDC.
The root cause of this outbreak, as well as other recent ones linked to romaine lettuce, are still unknown, though LGMA reminded us of the continued concentrated focus on safety by leafy greens producers and government regulators.
“We are very hopeful that what we learn from these recent outbreaks will help us to strengthen our food safety practices,” said Horsfall, who emphasized that since an outbreak linked to romaine last Thanksgiving, California and Arizona leafy greens producers made several changes to the food safety practices required of farmers. The changes include updated protocols for irrigation and increased buffer zones between leafy greens farms and adjacent animal operations.
The Western Growers Association (WGA) is among those trying to help growers stay as ahead of the current outbreak as possible, informing members that the Canadian government has taken actions related to the import and sale of romaine lettuce in Canada.
According to a statement from WGA, additional documentation is now required to confirm the growing region of romaine lettuce and ensure product from the Salinas growing area, including Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, and Santa Clara counties of California, does not enter Canada. Required documentation includes a Certificate of Origin and an attestation in writing, dated and signed, indicating the growing area.
“We have not heard of major issues or delays at this point; however, to avoid border rejections and delays, we strongly encourage Western Growers members to provide documentation via advance notice,” the WGA statement noted.
As the LGMA pointed out, leafy greens in central California is transitioning to growing regions in southern California and Arizona. It appears that romaine lettuce involved in this outbreak was likely harvested in the Salinas Valley growing area in September and October.
The question on everyone’s mind when our team at ANUK asks about the thought that keeps them up is nearly always food safety, no matter the strides taken in the past year and beyond. Weeks like this one are what we all fear and prepare for, no matter the role.
“The situation is heartbreaking. I have a very young family and the products we grow go to my family’s dinner table. My children consume the very same products we are sending out to consumers across the nation. That’s something I think about every day,” Dan Sutton, a farmer from Oceano, California, who serves as Chairman of the LGMA, said. He added that farmers never want outbreaks to happen, and that the team will continue to do everything possible to improve current required practices, the way leafy greens are farmed, and to ensure the safety of these products being put out to consumers can be improved.
Romaine from the following regions are currently considered safe: Yuma, Arizona; Phoenix, Arizona; Southern Arizona; Northern Arizona; Northern California; Santa Maria, California; Southern California, Imperial Valley, California; Coachella, California; and Central Valley. Product from Mexico and other states is also cleared, and hydroponically and greenhouse-grown romaine both were not implicated in the outbreak.
As the industry continues to strive for a seamless and safe output of all products, we hope for minimal impact as we look to keep you up to date on the latest for this developing story.