Operators support produce testing, vendor-focused safety proposals

MONTEREY Calif. Forty-three restaurant chains and companies meeting here March 30 agreed that suppliers should be required to test produce for dangerous pathogens such as the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Attendees of the NRA's two-day Produce Safety & the Foodservice Industry conference also reached a consensus that restaurant food should be protected through produce industry safety proposals for leafy greens and other so-called fresh-cut products, an official said. She added that support was voiced for the creation of additional safety standards and the passage of binding federal regulations.

"Hopefully, working with vendors, we can encourage movement forward, we can encourage research and we can encourage regulation," said Donna Garren, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs for the Washington-based association. Her comments came after a session on what the restaurant industry expects of its suppliers in terms of produce safety. The session was closed to reporters.

The conference was co-sponsored by Taco Bell, which last year suffered a regional E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to bagged lettuce. Seventy customers were confirmed to have been sickened by E. coli and hundreds more reported symptoms. Yum! Brands Inc., the quick-service chain's parent, said the outbreak cost it $20 million in operating profits.

Taco Bell vice president of quality assurance and product development Anna Ohki spoke at the event. She said operators should press produce growers and processors to test for pathogens in fields, irrigation water and finished products. They should also be pressured to fence fields to keep out animals and "broaden the scope of their food safety audits," she said.

The chain is not alone in believing produce suppliers should test for pathogens, according to Garren. Indeed, she said, conference attendees agreed during the closed-door session hat the time was right to "make it a requirement."

The food-safety metrics being endorsed in the short term by the NRA and some of its members are included in the "Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement," recently adopted by processors and shippers in California. State public health and U.S. Food & Drug Administration officials have backed the metrics included in the agreement as desirable short-term safety measures that may serve as a model for produce suppliers in other states and countries.

Though the processors and shippers who participate in the California agreement do so voluntarily, they are bound by law to follow the provisions of the program once they become signatories, supporters say. Among those provisions is the requirement that participants buy greens only from growers who comply with the associated food safety metrics and agree to inspections by employees of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The NRA's Garren indicated that foodservice operators can use the applicable safety metrics from the California agreement to guide suppliers of produce from all growing regions.

"We want application [of the metrics] across the board," she said.

Among conference attendees were representatives of Applebee's International Inc., Arby's Restaurant Group, Brinker International Inc., Buffets Inc., Burger King Corp., Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, McDonald's Corp., Panera Bread and Rare Hospitality International Inc.

In all, there have been 22 illness outbreaks tied to leafy greens during the past 12 years. Among them was last year's E. coli contamination of bagged, fresh spinach that killed three people and sickened as many as 4,000 others, according to some estimates that try to track related but unreported illnesses.