- The latest effort to end the string of foodborne illnesses in leafy greens comes from the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Board of Directors. California greens farmers now have additional requirements to reduce risk from water used on lettuce, according to a release.
- Although the California LGMA already requires farmers to test water, the updated rules prevent using untreated surface water for irrigation prior to harvest. Additional safeguards include ensuring farmers categorize water sources, consider how and when water is applied to crops, and sanitize water if needed. Testing irrigation water is currently not required by federal law.
- In January, the California and Arizona LGMAs adopted new standards including new equipment cleaning requirements, mandatory traceability measures, buffers between growing zones and animal feedlots and proactive measures for flooding and high wind weather, Food Safety News reported.
Three recent E. coli outbreaks sent shock waves through the leafy greens industry as romaine lettuce prices tumbled 50% and farmers plowed under lettuce fields or left them to rot, costing millions of dollars and consumer confidence. As California farmers get ready for this year's greens growing season, they will likely want to limit damages as much as possible.
This latest set of regulatory requirements from the LGMA strengthens regulations enacted in January, which pick up where the federal government left off. The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, calls for growers to test their irrigation water and take steps to prevent contaminated sources from being used on produce. But the FDA announced in September 2017 that implementation will be delayed until at least 2022 in order to allow the agency to "consider how we might further reduce the regulatory burden or increase flexibility."
However, water seems to be the culprit in these E. coli outbreaks. In November, USDA confirmed E. coli in irrigation canal water samples from Yuma, Arizona, most likely led to widespread contamination of romaine lettuce in spring 2018.
Growers not willing to risk another potentially deadly outbreak have taken the matter into their own hands. California-based Taylor Farms recently said it will only buy produce from growers treating open source irrigation water beginning May 1, The Packer reported. Additionally, Bonduelle Fresh Americas will require growers to treat water used in overhead irrigation in the 21 days before harvest. Now the California LGMA, which represents 90% of all leafy greens growers in the state, is extending these standards statewide.
For growers who have not yet voluntarily implemented anti-contamination efforts onto their farms, water testing and limiting surface irrigation just prior to the harvest period may take some logistical reworking, which could weigh heavily on bottom lines. However, there is a chance that the payoff for implementation will be worth the upfront cost.
While these more stringent requirements are not guaranteed to make leafy greens pathogen-free, they could inspire consumer confidence. If producers couple these requirements with their marketing efforts, these added water safety and sourcing transparency mandates could be rewarded with more purchases by both consumers and retailers this season. And with healthy eating habits on the rise and consumers munching on an average of 12.5 pounds of lettuce in 2017, according to Statista, restored confidence could mean higher sales and better profits.
California is not alone in its efforts. Arizona's LGMA has been working with California to implement water safety guidelines. Although both leafy greens safety groups already require growers to test their water for pathogens, they plan to announce stricter regulations on surface water use by next month.