U.S.: PMA, United Fresh welcome stricter ag water standards for leafy greens

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U.S.: PMA, United Fresh welcome stricter ag water standards for leafy greens

California's leafy greens industry has adopted new auditable ag water standards for its produce, a move embraced by two of the nation's powerful industry groups.

The stricter standards, which aim to provide “additional safeguards” concerning growers' water sources, were approved following a Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) Board vote in their favor last week.

The revised guidelines require growers to characterize, treat, and monitor all forms of surface water used for overhead irrigation of leafy greens within 21 years of harvest.

Signing on to the additional standards are the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA).

“This effort represents a fundamental shift to better reflect well-established scientific knowledge on how we should think about water quality and risk,” says Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh’s vice president of food safety and technology.

“We are no longer working on the assumption that water is based on a periodic, by the calendar, water test result - instead the industry assumes that surface water may present a risk to leafy greens and proactively treating it during the period closest to harvest,” she adds.

The industry's move toward this "fundamental shift" follows several E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. over the last few years, beginning in late 2017 and continuing until early 2019.

These health concerns, later linked to romaine lettuce, spurred a top-to-bottom review of the food's growing practices, specifically focused on water and irrigation, by both the U.S. government and the industry.

The publication reports that an investigation into one such outbreak in April 2018 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) resulted in the discovery of E. coli in canal water for irrigation that passed by a large cattle-feeding operation. The E. coli was a genetic match to the tests from patients.

While testing water for pathogens has always been required by the LGMA, the renewed focus on water sources reflects “a paradigm shift in ag water management,” says Dr. Bob Whitaker, PMA chief science officer.

He explains the industry's current perspective: “The key now is to undertake the education and training needed to implement the new metrics and most importantly, to begin learning about the effectiveness of the water metrics and continually improving them as the industry gathers data and distills the performance information.”

With more than 50 billion servings of lettuce and leafy greens grown annually in California and Arizona alone, the industry also relies on the Romaine Task Force, co-chaired by United Fresh and PMA, to provide safe produce.

This task force not only helped develop the new agriculture water standards, but will also evaluate the risk-based approach from the perspective of the leafy green supply chain, stresses United Fresh.

“Every box of leafy greens placed into commerce by a certified LGMA member will now be produced under new, more stringent requirements,” Scott Horshall, CEO of the LGMA for Calfornia reiterates.

As such, he says: “We have effectively changed the way leafy greens are farmed.”


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