The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has a new subcommittee that focuses on how land adjacent to leafy greens fields might contribute to foodborne illness outbreaks from romaine lettuce, but that is only one of several food safety initiatives now active with the group.
“Over the course of the last year we’ve completely revamped how we were organized to address food safety issues,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California LGMA.
The group has in place several subcommittees that consider water, soil amendments and sanitation issues, but Horsfall said recent development called for another area of focus.
“When the FDA published their final investigation report, they really drilled down on neighboring properties, adjacent properties, grazing lands, not so much the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which had been debated in the past, but looking at animal grazing as opposed to confined operations.”
The Adjacent Lands Subcommittee was established a week after the Food and Drug Administration release a report on three separate E. coli outbreaks from 2019 linked to romaine lettuce.
The FDA didn’t find a single specific source of the E. coli, but reported it was likely adjacent cattle grazing areas were the source.
LGMA has now appointed a new subcommittee that’s going to look specifically at adjacent lands issue, he said.
“They will bring in the scientists, the researchers, and will look at whatever science is available right now, will make recommendations on science that needs to be done,” he said.
The subcommittee, according to the LGMA, will look at a number of factors including distance; slope and other physical properties; the impact of weather; potential barriers such as berms, diversion ditches or vegetative strips; and “good neighbor” policies as they relate to properties located near leafy greens farming operations.
Beyond illuminating for LGMA possible actions to safeguard crops, Trevor Suslow, vice president of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association, said the FDA report on adjacent grazing lands is helpful by adding very specific data that can guide research efforts for the Center for Produce Safety.
“It is really trying to break the code on what are the conditions circumstances that bring E. coli from the cattle areas to the crops that time of year,” he said.
Change is the constant
In the path to food safety, Horsfall said the leaders of the LGMA have adopted the mantra “that the only thing that’s permanent is change.”
“We have had issues over the last three or four years and it has resulted in some very tragic outbreaks, and so we recognize that we as an industry have to do everything we can do,” he said.
The LGMA has moved to address irrigation standards and those changes are in process right now, he said.
Nearly 30 suggested changes for water use have been recommended by an LGMA subcommittee on water. These recommendations include updated requirements for drip and furrow irrigation as well as updates to water used for chemical applications.
Western Growers is taking input on options and will present proposed or potential changes that can be incorporated into food safety practices.
LGMA subcommittees have been formed to address other topics including equipment sanitation, soil amendments/crop inputs, adjacent land use and proximity to animals.
LGMA reports the Soil Amendments/Crop Inputs Subcomittee is looking at more detailed standards to address best practices that include compost applications; other crop and soil inputs; storage, handling and transportation; container ID and tracking; and inputs applied to neighboring properties.
Meanwhile, the Equipment, Packing Materials and Field Sanitation Subcommittee is looking to develop enhanced standards related to harvest equipment, harvest personnel and training that also encompass human vectored pathogens such as cyclospora and COVID-19.
While COVID-19 is not a food safety issues, Horsfall said the LGMA has another voice in encouraging appropriate precautions to prevent spread of the virus.
“We, along with other trade associations, have worked pretty diligently to get the word out about what growers need to be doing,” he said.
The LGMA has a web page devoted to coronavirus resources for its members at lgma.ca.gov/news/coronavirus-resources.
“We’ve worked hard to get that information out.”