On February 13, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its final report on the investigation of the E. Coli outbreak associated with romaine lettuce from California growing areas announced in November. Most of the information regarding the cause of the outbreak has already been made public by the FDA. However, in a statement issued by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. and Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas, the agency emphasized the need for additional measures to improve the safety of water used in farming leafy greens.
"The LGMA and our produce industry partners are already taking steps to address this issue and a group of food safety experts has been meeting to consider updated requirements for testing and treating agricultural water in response to the FDA’s findings.", a spokeperson explains.
"This past year has been sobering for the LGMA and its members. We are saddened and frustrated that the program we created to stop foodborne illness outbreaks has not lived up to its desired impact. But we are convinced that the LGMA is the best means of protecting consumers and that we will find solutions to make our products safer."
What the Investigation Revealed and Actions Being Taken
According to the FDA’s environmental report, the trace back investigation “collected samples of soil, animal feces, fertilizer, agricultural water and reservoir sediment. The CDC was able to find one positive match to the outbreak strain in the sediment of an on-farm water reservoir, used for irrigation, in Santa Maria, California.”
According to LGMA, "Given these findings, the FDA believes that the “most likely way romaine lettuce on a specific ranch on this farm became contaminated was from the use of water from this reservoir as agricultural water.” But, since the water from the reservoir “doesn’t explain how lettuce grown on other ranches or farms identified by traceback may have been contaminated…this one farm cannot explain the entire outbreak.”
The Process of Making Changes to LGMA Practices
LGMA continues, "We and our members are committed to making changes to improve the safety of leafy greens and preventing future outbreaks. LGMA members – in a process facilitated by Western Growers – have been hard at work looking at how the safety of agricultural water can be improved. The LGMA’s Technical Committee is meeting in March to further consider proposals that have been under discussion. Once approved, new metrics will be recommended to the LGMA Board for acceptance and these new practices will become part of the mandatory government audits required by the LGMA."
LGMA Food Safety Practices Only Apply to LGMA Members
Although the FDA recognizes the practices followed by one farm investigated in this outbreak do not explain the entire outbreak, it’s important to note that this farm is not a member of the LGMA. "Had they been a member, the mandatory government audits conducted through the LGMA program could have identified the lack of verification procedure records regarding sanitization of water. This fact underscores the important responsibility retail and foodservice buyers have in ensuring their leafy green suppliers are members of the LGMA. Because LGMA government audits become mandatory only after a company becomes a signatory, an important step in protecting consumers is for buyers to require their California leafy greens suppliers are certified members of the LGMA."