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Produce industry-led task force to tackle traceability, growing practices after outbreak

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The recent outbreak tied to romaine lettuce, which spilled over 32 states, sickened 172 people, caused one death and yet remains unresolved, has spurred industry to create a new task force that, starting next week, will begin identifying lessons learned from the outbreak and seek ways to apply them throughout the supply chain.

The newly created Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force hopes to develop recommendations for strengthening safety practices related to leafy greens in time for the next growing season in the Yuma, Ariz. this fall, according to Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), which is handling the new group’s work logistics.

“We realize that the timeline is short,” Horsfall told IEG Policy on Wednesday (May 30). “But we want to have recommendations in place for growers.”

An industry-led initiative, the task force includes members representing all aspects of the leafy greens industry, government agencies and consumer advocates who have come together to take an in-depth look at existing practices and standards throughout the entire supply chain and outline improvements that could prevent such an outbreak from happening again, Horsfall stressed.

“There is a recognition among industry that while we know a lot about food safety now, … we need to take a hard look at everything that we are doing,” he said.

The idea for the new task force was born out from that shared sentiment, Horsfall explained.

The California LGMA, which announced the creation of the group earlier this week, said the effort had been in the works for a few weeks and led to the creation of a steering committee that will direct the work of the group in the future. Among other groups, the committee represents the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers, Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association (YFVA), as well as the California Department of Food and Agriculture and STOP Foodborne Illness.

“This is an industry effort,” Horsfall said. “We just took the lead on formalizing the process.”

According to Horsfall, the hope is that the task force will attract more members of industry and the scientific community, who can add input as the task force studies the outbreak and tries to search for improvements.

The task force will also work in conjunction with FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The group is already set to talk with CDC and FDA officials during its first meetings on June 5-6, when members of the task force will receive updates on the specific challenges and roadblocks that the agencies ran into while investigating the outbreak.

The task force hopes to use the information as a foundation, upon which it can start building specific goals, plans and objectives for the future, Horsfall suggested. As members learn more specifics about the outbreak, they should be able to start a more in-depth conversation about where potential gaps may exist in the current system and what the best ways are to raise the bar for the future, he said.

“The primary focus is going to be this outbreak,” he said. “It is a major outbreak and it is very tragic.”

According to Horsfall, the committee will likely discuss both growing practices and traceability. The committee may also risk rank certain areas of the leafy green supply chain process in order to identify what areas would need most attention, Horsfall said.

Similar response to 2006 outbreak

“This is very similar to what industry has to do after what happened in 2006. You saw a similar coalition come together,” he said.

In 2006, a deadly outbreak of E.coli in spinach, prompted industry to come together and evaluate its practices, leading eventually to the creation of the California and Arizona LGMAs, which are auditing bodies that certify growers for the use of certain science-based food safety practices.

The spinach outbreak, which resulted in three deaths and more than 200 infections across 26 states, was also one of the reasons that led Congress to pass the Foods Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011.

And yet, despite all advances in the past 12 years, the E.coli outbreak in romaine lettuce has again placed the leafy greens industry under similar scrutiny.

“Any time there is an outbreak like this, what you hope for is to bring it to a resolution and identify steps for preventing it from happening again.” - Bob Whitaker, Produce Marketing Association

By creating the task force now, industry is trying to take the matter into its own hands and offer its own solutions for improvement, said Bob Whitaker, PMA’s chief science & technology officer at PMA, who now sits on new task force’s steering committee.

“Any time there is an outbreak like this, what you hope for is to bring it to a resolution and identify steps for preventing it from happening again,” he said. “In this case there has been no resolution yet. But industry can’t sit still. We want to try and understand what happened.”

Linked to 75 hospitalizations and 20 cases in which victims developed a kidney failure, known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, the outbreak involving romaine lettuce affected people in more states than the spinach outbreak ever did, becoming the most significant case of infections tied to leafy greens since 2006. And linked to the same particularly virulent strain of E. coli as the 2006 outbreak, the romaine E. coli infections have raised fears not just because the number of severe illnesses cause by the outbreak has been unusually high, but also because of the elusive nature of its source.

Though illnesses connected to the outbreak began as early as March 13, and federal agencies announced the outbreak in April, investigators so far have only connected the outbreak to lettuce from the Yuma, Ariz. region, without being able to determine how the contamination occurred or pinpoint the specific farm or field where it originated.

Consumer advocates said public warnings were too broad to help consumers protect themselves, while producers worried about the stigma the outbreak could leave on their industry.

All that led to a wave of criticism from consumer safety advocates and on May 24 – about a week prior to the announcement of the creation of the new task force – they urged FDA to improve traceability of high-risk produce such as leafy greens by implementing “long overdue” FSMA provisions. Specifically, the groups asked FDA to designate leafy greens as a high-risk food, which would require industry to abide by specific record-keeping requirements that would make it easier for the agency to trace outbreak sources.

According to Whitaker, the new task force should help industry focus its efforts on finding solutions for the future.

“Today we are a much different industry than we were in 2006,” he said on Wednesday (May 30). Because of changes ushered in through the implementation of FSMA, “there is now an infrastructure in place,” he noted.

However, industry needs to continue to reevaluate its practices and ensure that it operates in accordance to the latest science, and the new task force will be an opportunity for industry to have an open dialogue about that, Whitaker said.

“Trade associations work together all the time,” he noted. “But when you have an outbreak like this, you focus your effort in a very intense way.”

Specifically, Whitaker hopes that the task force will be able to study various factors related to the outbreak, including what environmental factors and growing practices may have contributed to the spread of contamination. And above all, PMA hopes the task force will give it a chance to learn about the latest science in the field and ensure that current practices are aligned with that, Whitaker said.

“We are very excited about partnering with other groups in the industry,” he said. “It will be an opportunity to have an open dialogue and discuss what we learned from this outbreak, [to learn] what did the regulatory agencies see.”

“Food safety is a journey, not a destination.”- Mike Taylor, STOP Foodborne Illness

Mike Taylor, a veteran food safety expert and former top-ranking administrator at both FDA and USDA, who has now joined the board of STOP Foodborne Illness and will represent the group on the new taskforce’s steering committee, commended industry for creating the new group.

“It does reflect their commitment to figuring out on how this can be improved,” he said.

STOP Foodborne Illness was the first food safety advocacy group to be involved with the task force because of its prior relationship with the LGMA in California, and industry participants have indicated they hope to attract more advocacy groups as the task force continues to grow.

And on for its part, STOP Foodborne Illness hopes to assist the new task force in continuing to search for ways to improve food safety, Taylor said.

“Our aspiration for [ the task force] is that it will continue to improve food safety practices,” he told IEG Policy on Wednesday. “We want to be at the table and be part of asking questions.”

“Food safety is a journey, not a destination,” he added.



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