- Recent tests done by Consumer Reports found listeria on six samples of greens randomly purchased at grocery stores. The consumer watchdog tested 284 samples of lettuce, spinach, kale and other leafy greens purchased between June 3 and 19 at grocery chains in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York including Costco, Whole Foods, Acme and Hannaford.
- Two of the contaminated samples were packaged — one was prewashed spinach and one was an organic spinach spring mix. The other four were loose heads or bunches of kale, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce and spinach, Consumer Reports said.
- One sample — a "triple-washed" Nature's Place Organic Spinach Spring Mix from Hannaford — had a strain of the pathogen linked to two listeriosis cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consumer Reports said it wasn't known whether those who fell ill had eaten leafy greens. A Hannaford spokesperson told the organization it had not received any reports of illness associated with the product.
Consumer Reports said recent illness outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce and other leafy greens prompted it to test the items. The group emphasized it did not find other pathogens that cause foodborne illness such as E. coli or salmonella.
Listeria can grow in refrigerated temperatures, so it can be particularly challenging to control. And while listeriosis isn't as common as other foodborne illnesses, it can be serious or fatal to pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
The testing didn't cover a large enough sample to draw safety conclusions about specific brands or retailers, but Consumer Reports said the results were nevertheless concerning and had been immediately shared with the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC and affected marketers and retailers.
"[T]he testing underscores that industry needs to do more to improve the safety of leafy greens," the group wrote in its report.
The FDA inspected the plant that produced the Nature's Place Organic Spinach Spring Mix, and Hannaford told Consumer Reports the agency had not found anything of concern. The FDA has a zero-tolerance policy for listeria and will take immediate action if it is found, including removing products from the marketplace.
These latest test results may be discouraging news to producers of leafy greens following three recent E. coli outbreaks linked to similar produce.
Last year, many in the leafy greens industry adopted a voluntary labeling regime indicating origin and harvest date. Some produce processors and distributors have also instituted stringent water quality requirements for suppliers to avoid potential waterborne contamination. The FDA confirmed in November that E. coli in samples of canal water used in irrigation from Yuma, Arizona, most likely led to widespread contamination of romaine lettuce in spring 2018.
Water testing requirements are in the Food Safety Modernization Act's produce safety rule to identify higher levels of fecal contamination and keep contaminated water from being used on produce. However, the FDA delayed the compliance date to 2022 to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers. Consumer groups have been pressuring the agency to fully implement the safety rule ever since.
A spokesman with FDA told The Packer the agency was looking at the Consumer Reports data and continues to recommend growers, distributors and retailers keep track of produce origins and make that information available for consumers.
Barring more government regulation and oversight, which is unlikely in the current regulatory climate, it's unclear what other steps the leafy greens industry will take to limit pathogen contamination. Most bacteria, including listeria, cannot be washed off with water. And since leafy greens are generally eaten raw, there is more risk to consumers than from foods such as meat that can be cooked to high enough temperatures to kill pathogens.
Consumer confidence may get shakier amid news of the outbreaks and contaminated produce. Even if no one gets sick from listeria, some may decide it's not worth the risk until routine testing becomes mandatory along the entire supply chain.