A new effort has been launched to improve food safety around leafy greens. ( Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force )

Growers, shippers, packers, buyers, government entities and consumers will be represented on the new Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force.

The industry created the group to improve food safety systems across the supply chain, according to a news release.

Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and a member of the task force steering committee, described its formation as an important step.

“There’s been a recognition that the industry ... and the science community and all the stakeholders in this effort need to come together again and take a good, hard look at everything that is available and see if we can’t figure out what steps can be taken so that we reduce the risk of this kind of thing happening again,” Horsfall said. “It’s not terribly unlike what the industry did in 2006, 2007 after the spinach outbreak.

“That led directly to the creation of the LGMA in both California and Arizona, so things are a lot different today,” Horsfall said. “We know a lot more about food safety today, but clearly we have a situation that requires that it be addressed by the industry.”

The Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements, the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association and Western Growers are among the industry organizations represented on the task force.

The creation of the formal group has been in the works for 2-3 weeks, Horsfall said.

The announcement of the task force came the week after numerous consumer and food safety groups called for the Food and Drug Administration to designate leafy greens as a high-risk food and asked the FDA to create more traceability protocols for the category.

The Food Safety Modernization Act had directed for such actions to be taken years ago. The current records requirement is one step up, one step back.

Traceability measures have become a topic in the wake of a nationwide E. coli outbreak tied to romaine from Arizona. More than six weeks after the initial outbreak alert, the FDA still does not know where the contaminated product originated or how it became contaminated.

Growing and packing practices and traceability will both be areas the task force will explore, but Horsfall indicated prevention is the priority.

“I’m very curious to hear from the federal investigators just what their challenges may be in terms of traceability,” Horsfall said. “We verify through the LGMA program that every one of our members has a traceability program that is in place and is working.

“Traceability certainly is a very important issue, but I’ll be really, really interested to learn just what improvements need to be made to that part of the process,” Horsfall said. “I would say that we’re going to focus heavily on practices that are going to prevent illnesses in the future because traceback and the investigation often just takes a long time, so far better if we prevent the pathogens from ever getting in the marketplace.”

The task force plans to consider various risks, rank them, look at how those risks are being mitigated currently, and decide whether improvements can be made.

“The commitment is there on the part of the industry, as it was 12 years ago, to do whatever they have to do to lower the risk as much as possible so that people don’t get ill from eating product that ought to be good for them,” Horsfall said. “It’s hard to speculate what will come out of the process. If there are implications for the LGMA standards ... then one of the beauties of the program is we have the ability to update those standards fairly quickly, and we would do that.

“There may be recommendations to industry, there may be recommendations to the federal government — we’re going to have to go where the evidence leads us, and like I said, the industry is committed to making the changes that have to be made to prevent these things from happening in the future,” he said.

Scientists and researchers, members of state and local governments and consumer advocacy organizations will also be part of the new task force, according to the release. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will work with the task force as technical advisors.

Jerry Muldoon with Dole Fresh Vegetables in Arizona and Steve Church with Church Brothers Farms in California are the chairmen of the steering committee directing the task force, according to the release.

Other members of the steering committee are:

  • John Boelts, Desert Premium Farms
  • Mary Campbell, Yuma Safe Produce Council
  • Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, Center for Produce Safety
  • Ed Foster, Arizona Department of Agriculture
  • Hank Giclas and Sonia Salas, Western Growers
  • Scott Horsfall, California LGMA
  • Natalie Krout-Greenberg, California Department of Food and Agriculture
  • Teressa Lopez, Arizona LGMA
  • Drew McDonald, Taylor Farms
  • Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh
  • Vicki-Lynne Scott, Amigo Farms
  • Victor Smith, JV Smith Companies
  • Abby Taylor, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California
  • Michael Taylor, STOP Foodborne Illness
  • Shelly Tunis, Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association
  • Jack Vessey, Vessey Farms
  • Kami Weddle, Rousseau Farms
  • Bob Whitaker, PMA

People wanting to participate in the task force can contact the Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements in the next couple of weeks.