Food safety has been a paramount priority of the fresh produce industry for many years. Members of the industry from growers through retail and foodservice have worked together to develop Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), implemented commodity-specific food safety programs, and supported government oversight and strong regulatory standards for safe production and handling of our products.
While there is no such thing as zero risk, when something goes wrong consumers can lose trust in our products, and potentially shy away from the very foods they should be eating for better health.
Last year proved to be a difficult year for the leafy greens sector, with three outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce. Our hearts go out to those consumers affected, and our resolve today is to learn all we can from those outbreaks, implement any changes we can to reduce further outbreaks, and work with government to drive enhanced ability to track and trace products to more effectively reduce risk and minimize disruption in our supply chains.
PMA and United Fresh have been working diligently since late 2018 to launch a new Romaine/Food Safety Taskforce to tackle these challenging issues and provide a path forward that can be embraced by the entirety of the supply chain. The Task Force is comprised of a cross-functional group of executive industry leaders
charged with creating learnings for our industry to prevent future outbreaks and to increase consumer confidence through improved food safety response and effectiveness. While outbreaks linked to romaine were the impetus of our action, this effort has applicability across all produce commodities.
The Task Force will focus on four distinct areas:
Science and Prevention: Our first goal has to always be to stop contamination from occurring and thereby reduce outbreaks. The incidents of the last year direct our attention to new concerns about potential environmental sources of contamination, and the need for deeper analysis in areas with the most immediate need.
Traceability: Now is the time when we must define the path forward for supply chain-wide traceability. Since launching the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) more than a decade ago, our industry has made great strides in being able to label cartons and consumer packaging with lot codes, scannable bar codes and data that link back to individual growers and fields. Yet, we are not capturing that data all the way through the system such that we can identify what specific product was sold at specific locations. When a consumer gets sick, we have to find a way to identify the responsible product and the data tracing its origin.
Consumer Labeling: Coming out of the romaine outbreak last fall, industry members agreed with FDA to voluntarily label romaine with harvest date and location, hoping that consumers would have confidence in product coming back on the market that could not have been involved in the outbreak. Today, the task force will seek to clarify confusion for producers and buyers in the implementation of the labeling program, and work with government to support new and more effective ways to achieve this goal.
Outbreak Investigations: Outbreak investigations are inherently slow due to reporting of illnesses, product identification, and traceback. Most often with our perishable products, the implicated item is long gone from the marketplace before FDA warnings and recalls. Both industry and government know we need to do better. Together, with all stakeholders, we must evaluate and improve upon the entire process to reduce risk to consumers, minimize disruption in our supply chain, and keep consumer confidence in our products.
The Romaine Task Force has been working intensely on all of these areas and will continue our work through the months ahead. We’ll share strategies and recommendations as they’re developed and seek input from partners across our industry.
We believe that we will only be successful with the full support of the industry and we commit to communicate the outcomes of the Task Force’s work at critical points over the next several months.
Tom Stenzel is president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. Cathy Burns is CEO of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.