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 firstname.lastname@example.org.