( File photo )

Diving into the issues surrounding the E. coli outbreak linked to chopped romaine lettuce from the Yuma region, the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force has divided into four working groups this summer.

With hope for a report by late summer, the task force is a broad collection of food safety and leafy greens industry members.

The steering committee for the task force met June 5 in Salinas, Calif., huddling with representatives from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Arizona Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said Sonia Salas, director of science and technology for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

A meeting June 6, also in Salinas, was open to anyone in the industry interested in the work of the task force.

The group’s website said the meeting included more than 70 stakeholders from industry and the buying community, including growers and researchers in Yuma who joined remotely.

At the time, the group took an extensive look at growing conditions, risk factors and root cause hypotheses, according to the group’s website.

“It was a good first step, a good opportunity to kind of talk to the issues and get all the cards on the table,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

Salas said the task force plans to meet again to review progress by late July.

She said it was a very productive meeting, with much discussion about how to sharpen produce safety systems to prevent future outbreaks.

She said task force working groups are tackling a range of subjects including traceability, communication and investigation issues, historical data and transitional issues between growing regions, and a closer looked at the effect nearby confined animal feeding operations have on leafy greens.

The one thing everybody agrees on is this is a tragic outbreak, and you know, that we’ve got to do whatever the industry can do to keep it from happening again.

Salas said there are food safety issues that the task force will take up that are relevant to other commodities besides leafy greens, and that work may be reviewed by relevant industry groups after the task force releases its report.

Horsfall said timely work of the task force is importance since planting decisions are already being made in Arizona for next winter.

“If there are things that can be done in time for this coming season, obviously, they want to do them,” he said.

“Part of the goal here is to see if we can’t at least narrow down and rank some hypotheses and see if we can reach consensus on what may have happened,” Horsfall said.

Industry leaders said some of the variables that are getting scrutiny in the E. coli outbreak are wind, water and the possible influence of confined animal feeding operations.

Then, if there are specific steps to prevent another outbreak, growers can take them and changes can be made to Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement metrics.

“So we’re all moving fast, there’s a lot of ground to cover, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Horsfall said.

“The one thing everybody agrees on is this is a tragic outbreak, and you know, that we’ve got to do whatever the industry can do to keep it from happening again.”