The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has sought to allay fears that the U.S. Government shutdown could be impacting the safety of romaine lettuce, following two major E. coli outbreaks over the last year linked to the commodity.
The group said that news of the shutdown's impacts on federal public health agencies has raised concerns about the safety of the U.S. food supply.
But it said that leafy greens producers want consumers to know the shutdown is affecting efforts to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks on their farms, adding that the industry has "significantly stepped up efforts" to improve safety following the outbreaks.
“Government foods safety audits of leafy greens fields in the southern desert areas of California and Yuma, AZ are continuing as usual,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the organization.
“These efforts are not impacted by the current government shutdown and, the leafy greens community continues to work diligently to protect public health.”
California and Arizona produce over 90% of leafy greens grown in the U.S. Growers in these states are subject to a stringent food safety program known as the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, or LGMA. Farms are inspected by government auditors to ensure the practices are being followed.
“The audits are conducted by government officials employed by the state departments of agriculture in California and Arizona who are not associated with the current federal government shutdown,” explained Horsfall.
“This means that government audits are regularly taking place in leafy greens fields to verify farmers are following all 150 food safety checkpoints that are part of each LGMA audit. Each member of the LGMA is audited an average of five times during the year.”
Following last spring’s E. coli outbreak that impacted romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona, the LGMA added additional requirements to its program that call for enhanced irrigation water testing and increased buffers between large animal operations and leafy greens farms.
“These new requirements are part of the government audits taking place today,” said Horsfall, adding the industry continues to examine its practices and a group of industry experts is currently reviewing existing food safety practices - particularly those involving water testing - so that additional safeguards can be added to the program.
“The leafy greens community is fully committed to preventing future foodborne illness outbreaks. The LGMA program was created as a mechanism to enforce food safety practices throughout the industry,” said Steve Church, a producer of leafy greens and chairman of the California LGMA.
“No one wants to prevent outbreaks associated with leafy greens more than we do. These recent outbreaks have been tragic for the people impacted by illnesses and costly to producers and our retail and foodservice customers. We are working as hard as we can to prevent these kinds of outbreaks from ever happening again.”