( Photo courtesy Craig Carlson )

The Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association have been utilizing a cross-functional Romaine Task Force since 2018 to tackle the issues related to preventing future outbreaks, improving customer confidence and food safety effectiveness. 

There are four distinct focus areas: science and prevention; traceability; consumer labeling; and outbreak investigation.

There are a number of critical questions for the Romaine Task Force to answer:

  • How effective is today’s irrigation water testing process?
  • What is the best water testing science available and how will these preventive measures be evaluated? 
  • How are pathogens getting through the field-testing process? 
  • How are pathogens getting through the processing plant sanitation process?
  • What are the recommended standards for consumer labeling of leafy greens?
  • Should blockchain be the traceability platform?
  • How to improve outbreak communications?

When you analyze the past three romaine outbreaks, the core problem has been pathogens from the irrigation water. The Food and Drug Administration has taken criticism for delays in new irrigation water-testing standards. 

A recent quote from the office of Sen. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chairwoman of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus and a senior Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said:

“Despite scientific evidence that contaminated agricultural irrigation water poses serious risks to produce safety, the FDA is continuing its proposal to delay implementation of the Produce Safety Rule’s testing requirements of agricultural water under the Food Safety Modernization Act. The original compliance date was set for 2018. However, under this policy FDA will not begin any enforcement of these rules until at least 2022.”  

The big question for the Romaine Task Force is, what can the industry do to strengthen irrigation water-testing standards in the mean time?

In a recent Twitter post, Frank Yiannas, the new deputy commissioner of food policy and response for the FDA, commented: “FDA’s investigation report provides more information than we had before & it reinforces the need to implement preventive measures based on the best available science. Let’s work — together & with a shared sense of urgency — to strengthen safeguards.” 

Everyone is saying the right things about working together with a sense of urgency. Most importantly, without FDA enforceable water-testing standards, leafy greens consumers remain at risk for another outbreak. 

To protect the consumer, the Romaine Task Force cannot delay; “with a sense of urgency” they must identify the steps and processes to immediately strengthen leafy greens safeguards for consumers.

Craig Carlson is president and CEO of Carlson Produce Consulting LLC.