With little fanfare last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would take “two important steps to advance the safety of leafy greens.” Although the announcement was quiet, the impact on how leafy greens will be grown, and the safety of the product, requires the attention of the restaurant industry as a whole.
At issue is something that has been obvious to some for over a decade: the fact that cattle and/or dairy farms adjacent to farms where leafy greens are grown are the likely root cause of E. coli outbreaks tied to lettuce.
In its announcement, the FDA made clear both the likely cause of these outbreaks, and that the time has come for the leafy green industry to take action to prevent them. The FDA said out loud that contamination caused from “adjacent land” is a “reasonably foreseeable hazard.”
The FDA took specific aim at California growers as the cause of repeated and ongoing outbreaks, putting the responsibility of combating the outbreaks squarely on the growers:
“This reoccurring pathogenic E. coli strain therefore appears to be a reasonably foreseeable hazard in the California Central Coast leafy greens growing region, and specifically of concern in the South Monterey County area of the Salinas Valley growing area. Farms subject to the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule are required to take all measures reasonably necessary to identify, and not harvest, produce that is likely to be contaminated with a known or reasonably foreseeable hazard,” FDA officials said. “The updated plan includes a renewed emphasis on actions to prevent contamination stemming from activities on adjacent land … [a.k.a. cattle and dairy operations].”
The FDA recommends that, in the future, the growers work to “determine how the contamination likely occurred and then implement appropriate prevention and verification measures.”
In addition, the FDA recommends that the growers create “protocol[s] to aid in the development and registration of antimicrobial treatments for pre-harvest agricultural water, and several focused inspections, follow-up investigations, sampling assignments, and critical steps taken to advance traceability of leafy greens.”
However, the FDA further recognized that it “cannot fix the issue of leafy green contamination on our own.”
The FDA noted that: “Industry leadership, along with collaboration among growers, processors, retailers, state partners and the broader agricultural community, is critical to establishing needed prevention measures and preventing foodborne illness.”
This is where the restaurant industry needs to pay attention.
Let’s be honest, by the time that lettuce is being served and consumed in a restaurant, it is too late to protect your customer or your brand. Remember, when there is a foodborne illness outbreak, few remember the name of the farm where the product was grown and likely contaminated, but the news always remembers the name of restaurant.
The only way to protect both the customer and the brand is to engage with the entire food chain — not just your supplier, but also the shipper, the processor and the grower.
As I said, the FDA has now said out loud that contamination caused from “adjacent land” is a “reasonably foreseeable hazard.” This means that restaurants must work with their entire supply chain to combat cattle and dairy contamination in areas where leafy greens are grown.
In order to protect itself and its customers, a restaurant needs to know that the salad served was actually grown in an area and in a manner as to reduce bacterial contamination on that ready-to-eat product.
Relying on a contact between the restaurant and its leafy green supplier is now not enough. Given the FDA pronouncement, restaurants need to affirm that the product be grown in an area where the “adjacent land” is not a “reasonably foreseeable hazard.”
Bill Marler is a partner in the Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark and a leading attorney specializing in foodborne illness and food safety.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of editors or management.