( File photo )

The final report from the Romaine Task Force, convened in the wake of several outbreaks traced to the lettuce, is far from the final say in the matter, with some recommendations for action as soon as December.

The task force, established by the United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association, has outlined a number of steps growers and others in the industry should take, many of them focused on water testing and irrigation. The 41-page report also focuses on traceability and the need to improve technology, an issue key to the Food and Drug Administration’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety campaign.

Recommendations in the report include:

  • The California and Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements should address furrow irrigation and other water applications, urging completion of metrics by December;
  • The LGMAs should set guidelines for farm-level verification/validation of required water testing and treatment by December;
  • By Jan. 1, all leafy greens cartons should have a scannable Produce Traceability Initiative label;
  • By next September, companies selling or serving leafy greens to consumers must be able to electronically provide information within hours, including the original source;
  • Suppliers should continue to label packaged romaine products with regional harvest information; and
  • Rapid Response Teams must be prepared to engage on produce outbreaks in every state or growing region.

The task force is also looking beyond the scope of romaine. United Fresh and PMA plan to assemble a diverse group from the supply chain to evaluate which aspects of the California and Arizona LGMA water metrics have application for other leafy greens, setting a March deadline for recommendations.

The task force did not, however, focus on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the vicinity of romaine fields. In an outbreak linked to Yuma, Ariz., romaine, inspectors found the same strain of E. coli in an irrigation canal that skirted a CAFO. The report notes that the FDA’s Produce Safety Rule puts the onus of ensuring water is safe on the grower.

“However, many members of the Task Force believe this is a hazard with significant potential to jeopardize the safety of romaine and other leafy greens if not managed appropriately,” according to the final report. 

PMA and United Fresh plan to organize a group of experts and industry stakeholders to study CAFOs effects on produce fields, and has set a deadline in March for an action plan that details how “credible, data-driven risk assessments should guide the establishment of location-specific distances from CAFOs and other risk-reduction interventions.”

In a joint statement on the final report, Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh, and Cathy Burns, PMA CEO, said it’s important that the industry and regulatory agencies collaborate and communicate.

“We’re pleased to say that collaboration is getting better already, but we need to address the systemic barriers between regulatory agencies and industry in order to narrow outbreaks as quickly as possible and prevent overly broad “do not eat” advisories,” they said in the statement.

It’s also important that investigations uncover the root cause of how a product became contaminated, according to Stenzel and Burns.

“Moving from one outbreak to the next without deeply understanding what went wrong is a failing strategy, and one our industry can no longer afford,” according to their statement.

Related articles:

Romaine Task Force: Final report and recommendations

FDA, industry to study pathogens in Yuma growing region

FDA sets meeting on New Era of Smarter Food Safety