( Photo courtesy Markon Cooperative )

One of the great closing lines in a movie is from the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” The character called Verbal says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” 

I thought of that memorable quote when we were in the midst of responding to the third food safety issue in the last 12 months tied to E. coli in romaine. 

Too many companies and people pretend food safety problems in fresh produce don’t exist. Statistics are cited of how many servings of fresh produce are consumed absent known issues, and the relatively low incidence of illnesses. That’s like telling someone how many miles are flown in airplanes that don’t crash. 

Statistics don’t matter if your produce is recalled, makes someone ill or causes death. 

The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement LGMA program represents 98% of the leafy greens produced in California. It is a voluntary program informed by sound science, including research through a partnership with the Center for Produce Safety. While growers are not required to participate in LGMA, if they do commit, they are required to be compliant with the program requirements and be verified through government audits. 

Nobody, and I mean nobody, should think that listeria, E. coli, salmonella, cyclospora, or another pathogen doesn’t possibly exist in their fields, on their machinery, or in their facility.

So far, one farm has been identified in Santa Barbara County by the Food and Drug Administration as a source of contaminated romaine. While I can’t speak about the practices on that individual farm, we do know this grower is not a participant in LGMA. Although LGMA cannot guarantee the safety of all leafy green crops, it does represent industry best practices and can be adjusted quickly to respond to new science. So why are only 98% of leafy greens represented? I can only speculate. 

Perhaps a grower doesn’t believe all the metrics are needed, or believes their practices somehow prevent contamination. Or maybe the cost of program participation is deemed not worth the investment — but these arguments would be wrong. 

In fact, while food safety programs like LGMA are voluntary for growers, they shouldn’t be for buyers. What buyer wants to buy product from a grower that isn’t publicly verified as following industry best practices? Beats me, but this buyer won’t compromise, and I encourage other buyers — both in retail and foodservice — to help enforce LGMA food safety practices by requiring their leafy greens suppliers to participate in the program.  

It’s time for wishful thinking to be over, and the industry’s self-inflicted calls by the FDA for withdrawal of product to stop. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should think that listeria, E. coli, salmonella, cyclospora, or another pathogen doesn’t possibly exist in their fields, on their machinery, or in their facility.
 
The recent food safety outbreaks demonstrate we can no longer deny the existence of food safety vulnerabilities. Rather, we need to re-focus on an ongoing need to evaluate food safety practices. Joining LGMA, supporting research at the Center for Produce Safety and having a zero-tolerance policy on practices that could put consumers and our industry at risk is a good start. 

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative. E-mail him at timy@markon.com.

 
Comments
Submitted by Randy Vande Guchte on Sat, 12/22/2018 - 09:59

Most growers and shippers agree with with food safety. All growers are concerned about food born illness's coming from their farms, it is a growers worst nightmare. Growers do complain about the extra work and cost of food safety audits and practices, as the input costs of farming keep rising, the average price of their products see little to no change unless there is a weather event effecting another competing growing area, as buyers look for the lowest cost of goods.

Submitted by Randy Vande Guchte on Sat, 12/22/2018 - 09:59

Most growers and shippers agree with with food safety. All growers are concerned about food born illness's coming from their farms, it is a growers worst nightmare. Growers do complain about the extra work and cost of food safety audits and practices, as the input costs of farming keep rising, the average price of their products see little to no change unless there is a weather event effecting another competing growing area, as buyers look for the lowest cost of goods.

Submitted by Produce Guy on Mon, 12/24/2018 - 07:05

Saying that "many companies in produce believe there are no food safety issues in the industry" is an ignorant statement. There are problems, we all know it, but it's going to take good old cash to fix (most of) them. It is also unrealistic (and dangerous) to sell the notion to consumers that it is possible to have 100% safe produce. Eliminating all illness from food is like eliminating all mentally unstable people who may commit a terrorist attack from the world. I know pointing the finger at others has unfortunately become a gratifying American past time as of late, but if we are serious about making our food safer, let's start pointing the finger back at each one of us. Produce is not grown in an ether. If we want safer food, what we do to the environment also matters. Customers need demand safer food, but they should be prepared to do their part by taking care of the environment and, specially, be prepared and willing to pay a little more for the food they eat.