Statement From California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement on Romaine Lettuce

1. What was the source of the most recent outbreak?

The exact farm or field that was the source of this outbreak is currently unknown, but government investigators are convinced the source is romaine lettuce grown in Salinas. The LGMA is hopeful we will learn information from this outbreak that will help us determine how romaine came to be the source of this outbreak so that we can make changes to the mandatory food safety practices that are required under our program and prevent future outbreaks.

2. What is currently being done to prevent romaine and other lettuce from being contaminated as a result of the following:

The LGMA program is the most stringent system for ensuring food safety practices are being followed on the farm. Members of the LGMA are audited by government officials approximately 5 times per year to verify they are following over 160 different food safety checkpoints on their farms. These checkpoints focus on the following areas:  general requirements, environmental assessments, water use, worker hygiene and field operations.

Specifically, under the following areas

a. ground water/surface water – Under the LGMA program, producers have always been required to test water to ensure it meets quality standards. New this year are requirement that treat different kinds of water differently.  Water is placed into two categories. The first category includes water that comes from a source that is unlikely to be contaminated (i.e., water from a well or a municipal source). The second category is known as ‘surface water’ or ‘open source water’ and includes water that from a reservoir, canal, creek or stream. This kind of water has greater potential to be exposed to the environment. Under new LGMA requirements, all water must be tested and sanitized if it doesn’t meet quality standards. But any surface or open source water that will be applied to the crop in the last 21 days before harvest must be sanitized prior to use.

b. animals on the ground, in nearby lots, or birds flying overhead – Buffer zones are required between leafy greens and confined animal feeding operations.  These buffer zones range from ¼ mile to one mile, depending on the size of the animal operation.  The LGMA requires that fields be checked prior to harvest for signs of animal intrusion.  If evidence of animal intrusion is found, it must be investigated further. Under some circumstances, portions of the field, or even an entire field, may not be harvested.

c. workers – Workers are subject to many required food safety practices. They are required to wash hands and are prohibited from wearing certain items of clothing. Workers are also trained to watch for any potential food safety risks and report them to supervisors. Ill employees are not allowed to come into contact with leafy greens products.

d. processing facilities –The LGMA program does not oversee operations inside processing facilities, but these operations are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are also subject to other programs including other third-party inspections.   

3. Does the shape of romaine raise its risk for contamination? 

This has been one of the factors speculated about in working to resolve the issue of why romaine has recently been the source of foodborne illness outbreaks. To help us answer this question, we reached out to Dr. Trevor Suslow with the Produce Marketing Association and have attached an additional document with his answer to this question. Please note that Dr. Suslow has done a tremendous amount of research on this topic and as part of his work has purposely applied pathogens to leafy greens crops to determine their susceptibility for contamination.

However, we want to note that even with the recent outbreaks involving romaine, incidents of foodborne illness are extremely rare. Every day the leafy greens farmers in California and Arizona harvest 130 million servings of safe leafy greens. But even one illness is too many. The kind of research Dr. Suslow describes in the attached document is extremely important in helping us resolve food safety issues for leafy greens.  We encourage you to contact him directly for more information on this work.

You can reach him at: tsuslow@pma.com.

4. What plans do you have to prevent future outbreaks for lettuce?

The LGMA is constantly updating and reviewing the mandatory food safety practices that are at the heart of its food safety program.  There is nothing more important to us than making sure our products are safe.  

To further protect consumers, the LGMA is conducting a systematic review of all the food safety practices included in its program.  

We have appointed industry experts to serve on a series of committees focused on examining different aspects of the LGMA’s current food safety practices. The new committees will consider additional changes to agricultural water standards beyond what we described above in 2. (a.)  We will also examine practices regarding soil amendments, operations adjacent to leafy greens farms and the sanitation of harvest equipment.

Numerous efforts throughout the produce industry are underway to help us learn how future outbreaks can be prevented and contained. There is an incredible amount of attention throughout the entire supply chain on improving the safety of leafy greens.  This is without question the most important issue on everyone’s mind.

5. When will romaine lettuce be safe to eat again?

The current consumer advisory is for romaine grown in the Salinas area and the season has ended in this region. Romaine producers worked quickly with the retail and foodservice customers to remove product grown in Salinas from marketing channels and any fields that remained to be harvested were plowed under.  Romaine grown in Salinas is no longer available for sale and romaine grown in other regions is safe to eat as are other leafy greens varieties.

We are encouraging consumers to follow the advice of public health agencies and nutrition experts like Dr. Oz and that they avoid eating romaine grown in Salinas but switch to other leafy greens varieties like iceberg, green leaf, spinach, kale or cabbage or that they eat romaine from growing areas other than Salinas.

Note:  A new outbreak of e. coli O157:H7 is now being investigated in the U.S. and Canada which is associated with a specific packaged salad mix. This salad mix is also not likely to still be available for sale.  Little information is known at this time about the source of this outbreak, but illnesses do not seem to be caused by the same pathogen strain as the larger outbreak linked to romaine grown in Salinas. The packaged salad mix involved contains several ingredients and it has not been determined which item may be involved.  The LGMA will be happy to provide additional comment if the source of this new outbreak is found to be a leafy greens product.