How a water safety plan could help avoid leafy green outbreaks
- Bonduelle Fresh Americas, which offers vegetables, salads and fresh meal solutions, announced it has adopted a plan with its growers to make sure its leafy greens supply is safe through this year's growing season in California.
- The company said it assessed all of its growing fields during the past several months, focusing on irrigation systems, including water sources, distribution systems, and irrigation and treatment methods.
- Using this information, Bonduelle set up requirements for its growers to reduce pathogen risk. For overhead irrigation, growers must treat any surface water, water transported by canals or water held in irrigation reservoirs during the final 21 days of the scheduled harvest. For aerial applications of chemicals, growers must either meet microbial drinking water standards or treat water to reduce pathogen risk in all water sources.
As the California leafy greens growing season approaches, Bonduelle Fresh Americas doesn't want to take any chances on a foodborne illness outbreak. There have been three recent E. coli outbreaks linked to leafy greens and romaine lettuce, and the industry understandably wants to limit any possible damage this year.
Bonduelle has good reason to make sure its produce growers are treating their irrigation water. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed this past November that E. coli in irrigation canal water samples from Yuma, Arizona, most likely led to widespread contamination of romaine lettuce in the spring of 2018. Requiring growers to treat water used in overhead irrigation during the 21 days before harvest could help protect produce from contamination and enhance consumer confidence that the company's leafy greens are as free from pathogens as possible.
Bonduelle's requirements go beyond current regulations in the Food Safety Modernization Act's produce safety rule. While there are water testing requirements in the rule to identify higher levels of fecal contamination and keep contaminated water from being used on produce, the FDA delayed those requirements in 2017 out of concern for reducing the regulatory burden on farmers. Consumer groups have been pressuring the agency to fully implement the produce rule ever since.
As Bonduelle takes steps to ensure the safety of its fresh produce — sold under the brands Ready Pac Foods, Bistro, Ready Snax, Cool Cuts, elevĀte, Bonduelle Fresh Picked and Bonduelle Heat & Eat Harvest Bowl — the move could potentially position the company above competitors who don't adopt such voluntary water treatment policies. And if the company includes information about its agricultural water safety plan in marketing outreach, consumers might appreciate the transparency and reward Bonduelle with their purchases.
But Bonduelle isn't the only produce company tightening up grower requirements. California-based Taylor Farms recently said it will only buy produce from growers treating open source irrigation water beginning May 1, since the water has been "identified as a meaningful risk factor for promoting the harborage and transmission of pathogens when not managed properly," The Packer reported.
More outbreaks and possible recalls could be devastating to the leafy greens industry as consumption of healthier foods is increasing. Fresh lettuce consumption has been averaging about 11.5 to 12 pounds per person each year for the past dozen years, according to Statista.
However, reports of foodborne illness last year cut into sales of romaine lettuce, according to Nielsen figures. Sales of the most widely consumed salad green fell 13% for the year ending Nov. 24, but iceberg and Boston varieties benefited from an almost 170% price increase.
Members of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California and Arizona have been working on their own water safety guidelines. The LGMA recently said an industry group facilitated by Western Growers has agreed that "using untreated surface waters for overhead irrigation during the final weeks of production presents an elevated risk." The group said it plans to make an announcement about new required food safety practices to reduce this risk later this month or in early May. Until then, Bonduelle's extra steps to ensure safety could attract consumers away from competitors.