A field of romaine lettuce grows in California. ( Courtesy Fresh Express )

There’s no cause for undue concern about the safety of California greens this summer, despite a foodborne illness outbreak in the spring attributed to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Ariz., food safety experts say.

The season ended for Yuma lettuce growers in June, and Yuma shipments have long since halted for the year, said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the Sacramento-based California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

“There’s really no reason for consumers or retailers to be concerned about the safety and the quality of romaine and other leafy greens that are being shipped to market now,” he said in late June.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 210 people in 36 states became ill from the romaine E. coli outbreak from March 13 to June 6.

Nearly 100 people were hospitalized, and five people died, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The LGMA has formed its own Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force that is investigating the cause of the outbreak and looking at what can be done to prevent similar incidents, said April Ward, marketing director.

A 20-member steering committee, which includes representatives from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, held its first meeting on June 5, and 50 additional stakeholders from throughout the produce industry and buying community took part in a meeting June 6.

After months of investigation, the FDA reported June 28 that the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 appeared to be linked to canal irrigation water.

Although the FDA stopped short of declaring definitively that water was the source of the E. coli, “It could be a very useful clue,” Horsfall said.

“This is one of the more useful bits of information that we can now focus on,” he said.

“The real question is, how did it get there?” said Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association.

The canal may be the source, he said, “but the E. coli has to get into the canal somehow.”

“E. coli doesn’t spontaneously appear in water or in a lettuce field,” Horsfall said. “It comes from the guts of animals.”

Whitaker said he was encouraged that the produce buying side “is interested, and that they are plugged into the whole process.”

“The communication between buyer and producer is as important now as ever,” he said.

Buyers need to know what their producers are doing in regard to food safety, Whitaker said. And buyers themselves must do their part to ensure the safety of the produce they sell.

Horsfall added that maintaining the cold chain is a must, and that keeping good records at all levels is “critically important” when dealing with an outbreak.

“Everything that can be done along the way to make sure good records are in place is helpful,” he said.

The industry is in need of standardized traceability tools, Whitaker said, “and they have to be implemented from the point of sale all the way back to the farm to enable rapid tracebacks.”

Another meeting of the LGMA task force was expected to take place in late July.

A website has been established at www.leafygreensfoodsafety.org “to ensure inclusiveness and transparency,” Ward said.

Interested parties can sign up to receive e-mail updates about the task force’s progress.

Task force members agreed that smaller breakout groups will focus on key areas including analysis of weather, climatic and growing conditions and other farm factors; traceability; and communication with government agencies.

In a post on the group’s website, Ward said the purpose of the task force is “to sharpen food safety systems throughout the entire leafy greens supply chain from production, to packaging.”

She termed the task force “an excellent example of collaboration among industry and government to share ideas and solve issues.”