An interview with April Ward, Marketing Communications Director, California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement
FoodSafetyGuy (FSG): Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to answer some questions about your association and the important work you have started. Many of our readers are from the Upper Midwest and rely very heavily on leafy greens grown and harvested from areas like the Salinas Valley. Will you give a little background history on the organization?
April Ward (AW): The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was formed in 2007 following a tragic outbreak of e. Coli associated with spinach. At that time there were no national laws for food safety in the produce industry, so producers of spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens acted to create a unique public-private partnership designed to ensure a set of science-based food safety practices are following on leafy greens farms. The California LGMA operates with oversight from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. There is a similar organization in Arizona.
Membership in the LGMA is voluntary, but once a member signs on to the Agreement, compliance with the food safety practices is mandatory. Members are subject to mandatory government audits, which include over 150 different food safety checkpoints that must be in place on leafy greens farms. Audits are performed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture employees. Each member is audited an average of five times per year. All members must be in 100% compliance with all required food safety practices. If even one practice is found to be out of compliance, the member is required to correct the situation. A list of certified members of the LGMA can be found on our website here.
FSG: Top of mind right now is the recent e. Coli outbreak (Nov-Dec, 2019) which the FDA has just closed the book on. Was there an identified source of contamination?
AW: The FDA has stated its investigation of this outbreak is ongoing. They have identified some potential fields where romaine involved in recent outbreaks could have been grown. According to the FDA, investigators from the FDA, CDC, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Public Health have visited these fields and taken a variety of samples from water, soil and compost. So far, sample results have come back negative and clues obtained do not explain the illnesses seen in these outbreaks.
FSG: As we learn about leafy greens outbreaks it seems that the common causes tend to be animals, water, or a combination of the two. How hard is it to prevent these contaminants from getting to the produce?
AW: The LGMA has the most stringent requirements of any food safety program for produce grown anywhere in the world. The leafy greens community is more frustrated than anyone that outbreaks continue to be associated with their products. At a recent meeting, leaders from the LGMA agreed it is the industry’s responsibility to strengthen our mandatory food safety practices even further.
FSG: What is your position on labeling the growing/processing region for each lot of produce shipped?
AW: As part of required food safety practices, members of the LGMA must have traceback systems in place that allows them to track their product back one step in the supply chain and forward to the first place they sell their product. This system is designed to assist in tracing product in the event of an outbreak and is mandatory for all LGMA members.
Following the outbreak last November, the FDA asked leafy greens shippers to voluntarily label their products with the growing region. This labeling was valuable in helping to specify for consumer advisories issued this November limiting them only to romaine lettuce grown in the Salinas region.
FSG: If a particular grower or processor is the source of an outbreak, how does that impact the other growers in the area? As end-users, we hear about a region, but usually not about a particular farm. Does that create tension among members?
AW: The LGMA and its members are committed to doing everything possible to prevent these outbreaks from happening. Producers in all growing regions in California and Arizona are working together to solve this issue. The LGMA is currently conducting a systematic overhaul of the food safety practices included in our program. We have appointed industry experts to serve on a series of new Subcommittees to address specific areas involved in the production of leafy greens. The subcommittees concerned with agriculture water and soil amendments have already met several times, and a subcommittee on the sanitation of equipment has been organized through the Arizona LGMA. Other subcommittees are being formed to focus on soil CAFOs and other key subjects.
It’s important to note that when the LGMA makes changes to our requirements, they are implemented on thousands of farms that produce over 90% of the leafy greens grown in the U.S.
FSG: How quickly after an outbreak is suspected does the public get notification? Do your growers feel that is quick enough? Is it an overreaction?
AW: This is a question that is best answered by public health agencies. It is our understanding that agencies make public announcements as soon they can provide people with information on some kind of action that can be taken to prevent illness. If the agencies don’t have a good idea of what is making people sick, it is very difficult for them to provide information about actions that consumers can take. The LGMA learns the information at virtually the same time as the public.
Whenever leafy greens are suspected in an outbreak, the LGMA works to fully cooperate with consumer advisories and we do our best to assist the government in getting the word out to prevent additional illnesses.
FSG: How severely can an outbreak impact a particular grower? Is there financial hardship in the aftermath?
AW: While we don’t have specific figures, we know that outbreaks are tremendously costly to all parties involved including growers and the companies who harvest, pack and sell leafy greens along with their employees. The impact is also felt throughout the supply chains as grocery stores and restaurants must discard the product.
Of much greater concern is the impact outbreaks cause to those who are sickened and their families. This is why the LGMA and our members are working hard to figure out how these outbreaks can be prevented. They are devastating to our industry and to consumers. They absolutely must stop.
FSG: Will you give us an example of a proactive step the industry is taking to head off future outbreaks and contamination?
AW: The LGMA recently put together a list of action items currently taking place throughout the produce industry to prevent and contain future outbreaks. We have attached the list here. There is an incredible amount of focus throughout the entire produce supply chain on improving the safety of leafy greens. This is, without question, the most important issue on everyone’s mind.
FSG: If someone was interested in learning more about leafy greens or your organization, where should they search?
AW: We have a great deal of information available on our website at www.lgma.ca.gov.
FSG: Do you have members who are available to present to conferences or workshops?
Thank you for giving us a glimpse at your organization and the important work you are doing.