While the recent E. Coli outbreak in Romaine Lettuce clearly underscores the importance of continued improvements in food safety, Arizona families and Americans across the country would be pleased to discover that our produce farmers in Arizona and California take this issue very seriously. They take action through a highly rigorous food safety program that attempts to prevent outbreaks all along the complicated food supply chain. 

“We have to look at this particular pathogen, E. Coli 0157: H7. It only takes enough of this strain to cover the tip of a straight pin to make 100 plus people ill,” says Yuma vegetable farmer and Arizona Farm Bureau First Vice President John Boelts in an interview with KJZZ. “It’s a very veracious toxin. It emits one of the most toxic substances known to humans. But you’re talking about something microscopic. Our interest is in finding the point source. We want to know how that pathogen did or didn’t enter into the food supply and make sure we prevent this in the future.”

Yuma farmer John Boelts, in an earlier photo with his daughter shown in a field of Romaine lettuce, says Arizona farm families growing vegetables take food safety very seriously because what they grow, they feed their own families. Food safety is considered their highest priority in growing fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables for Americans across the country.

The encouraging news is that the Romaine lettuce that sickened people in 25 states as of this article posting is no longer on market shelves. Most lettuce, like Romaine, averages a 21-day shelf life. The heartbreaking news: the CDC today has also just confirmed one death. CDC is also citing a case count of 121 with 52 hospitalizations as of the posting of this article. 

“We’re very much interested in getting to the bottom of this so we can make sure we can prevent this in the future,” explains Boelts, in farming for the last 20 years in Yuma growing every type of leafy green you can imagine, plus melons, cotton, and wheat.

In the meantime, our California and Arizona produce farmers are serious about food safety and our most recent video on this topic highlight that point.

We know Farm to Table; it’s now engrained in our farm and ranch lexicon. Daily we’re producing high quality, fresh foods. But along this path in our food supply chain are opportunities for pathogens like E. Coli 0157: H7 to lurk. So far, while reports vary, in the case of the Romaine lettuce the “Point source” might be the farmer’s field, in the harvest process, when the lettuce was placed in boxes, shipped to another facility, stored under refrigeration, washed, chopped, and then packaged in bags. Any number of links in the chain could create the opportunity for contamination.

No farmer or shipper, regardless of size (small, medium or large, organic or conventional), is exempt from risk. The food system is complex, exacting and mostly unforgiving.

But under Arizona and California Leafy Green Marketing Agreements, one of the highest standards in food safety management and monitoring, food safety processes along the entire food chain to detect problems, prevent and correct them are in place. The recent outbreak, however, is proof that even the highest standards can’t prevent everything.

As their website states, “The goal of the Arizona Leafy Green Products Shipper Marketing Agreement (AZ LGMA) is to ensure that Arizona’s leafy greens meet mandatory food safety standards upheld with audits conducted by government-certified inspectors.”

And, now with Arizona’s recent Senate Bill 1063: Produce Safety Rule; State Administration signed into law by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in March, the bill assigns the Arizona Department of Agriculture to assume primary enforcement of the Produce Safety Rule.

In the KJZZ interview, Boelts highlights that the most important thing to all the vegetable farmers is that people who have fallen ill get the best medical care they can. Their second priority is to keep working on preventing pathogens from striking at any stage in the food supply chain.

In a call with Boelts today, I asked more about what farmers are doing. "Through the LGMA program, ultimately the best science available, we work to control, prevent and keep out pathogens. None of us would knowingly ship anything that would be harmful," explained Boelts. "Despite the fact that these pathogens are in our natural environment, to even suspect that something as vicious as E. Coli 0157: H7 might be in something we've grown is completely against everything we believe in. It's why we constantly test our water, examine our fields before harvest and more. The effort to advance the food safety system we employ is a constant."

Is this an impossible feat considering that Arizona and California are our largest vegetable producers feeding you and me and the world 365 days out of the year, three times a day in a very complex, constantly moving and sophisticated system? Considering what E. Coli 0157: H7 can do to you and me, they must and they are.

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