In the wake of a romaine outbreak that has sickened more than 170 people, the industry is evaluating production practices. ( File Photo )

Growers, marketers, buyers, researchers and others will be taking a comprehensive look at production practices as part of the new Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force.

The industry started making plans for the group soon after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked romaine to a multistate E. coli outbreak in mid-April.

More than 170 people have been sickened, and one death has been reported. The Food and Drug Administration has not been able to pinpoint the source of contaminated product.

With the outbreak being the second in six months tied to leafy greens, the industry recognized the need for collaboration to identify and reduce risks in the supply chain.

When the idea of the task force was first conceived, part of the expectation was that the industry would examine the circumstances that led to the romaine outbreak. At this point, that information is not available.

“We’re going to have to take a different approach ... look at different hypotheses and try to come up with ideas based on the characteristics of the outbreak as we understand it from FDA and CDC," said Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association. "What was the environment like down there during the production of the products? Were there any relatively abnormal weather events? Might there have been some kind of migration of animals? Was there anything that might have happened to the water supply? Is there anything in the environment there that might be a source of E. coli?

“We’re going to have to make some hypotheses and then go through and look at the types of data and the types of observations that people made during the growing season and how does that fit the hypotheses,” Whitaker said. “We can then prioritize what are the most likely events to have taken place and then look at working together to leverage the best science we have, but also work together to determine what might we do to manage our hypothesized contamination threat.”

While the task force has been in the works for a while, the announcement about it came the week after numerous consumer and food safety groups called for the FDA to designate leafy greens as a high-risk food and create more traceability protocols for the category.

The Food Safety Modernization Act had directed for the creation of a list of high-risk foods and traceability measures to accompany it. The FDA has been working and continues to work on those projects, said FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine Stephen Ostroff.

Prevention of outbreaks will be the priority of the task force, but traceability will be discussed.

“The primary focus of the task force is to make sure that outbreaks don’t occur, but recognizing that from time to time they may occur, we also need to focus on that response, so that includes traceability, it includes how we work with the government agencies to collaborate, to share information, to provide clear communications both to consumers as well as to the industry,” said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association. “It is a large effort, but time is of the essence because, particularly for the growers in Yuma, they’re obviously concerned about their plans for the near future. They need to be making business decisions about what they’re going to plant, what they’re going to ultimately harvest and want to make sure that they do it in the safest way possible.”

Getting the FDA perspective on traceability of produce — specifically for the romaine outbreak — is of interest to the industry.

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

Scientists and researchers, members of state and local governments and consumer advocacy organizations will also be part of the new task force, according to a news release.

The FDA and the CDC will work with the task force as technical advisors.

“I think the role changes and evolves throughout the process,” Whitaker said. “So at the very beginning, it’ll be important for them to share with us what they’ve learned, about this outbreak and perhaps about other outbreaks that we might leverage for this particular instance. So in a way they’ll have data and they’ll have perspective, they’ll have learnings that they went through as they dealt with this particular outbreak.

“As time goes on, I think that in some ways the roles become reversed in a way because (industry members) understand how crops are produced and what the environment was like in the desert region this past winter, (so) I think it’ll be an opportunity for the regulatory agencies and the CDC to kind of get a firsthand view, if you will, of real modern crop production. So hopefully that’ll given them a better perspective. It’ll also help them better equip themselves for future investigations.”

The market for romaine, which dropped significantly in wake of the outbreak, has been slow to bounce back.

“Even if this outbreak is over from a public health standpoint, the impact on the industry certainly is not,” McEntire said. “It will be a difficult recovery, but I think the industry recognizes that this has made potentially a lasting impression on consumers, so the effort that the industry needs to put into solving this and making sure that products are safe, making sure that if there is an issue that it can be quickly resolved, the industry has tremendous motivation to do that right now.”