Where We Accept Risk; Where We Don’t

Where We Accept Risk; Where We Don’t
Romaine lettuce from Yuma.

Since Americans eat an estimated 130 million salads a day, California and Arizona leafy greens farmers, along with shippers, have zero tolerance (sometimes called a “no fail” policy) when it comes to safety in the food safety supply chain. And yet, we all witnessed two E. Coli outbreaks both in Romaine lettuce unfold in the last two years, one in Arizona (the first during the last 2017/2018 growing season) and the most recent that originated in California. To all of us, and certainly the victims, this is heartbreaking. To the farmers and shippers, I talk to, it’s not only heartbreaking but disheartening, especially after years of dedicated efforts to keep situations like this from happening.

To prevent such occurrences of an outbreak, California and Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements (LGMA), operate with oversight from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) and serve as a mechanism for verifying through mandatory government audits that farmers follow accepted food safety practices for lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens. These LGMA food safety practices are designed to reduce the sources of potential contamination on farms or into fields. Over time, these food safety practices continue to evolve as the industry, scientists, and academia identify and develop modern technologies to further improve food safety practices to protect public health.

These two LGMAs have been looked to across the country for counsel and insight by other groups to come up to speed on food safety, especially now that the new federal law, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), is in place. The farmers and shippers associated with these two groups know how to do food safety.

So, then what happened out west with Romaine lettuce? The mystery in both instances continues since the FDA and USDA have yet to name the true “point source” in both instances. Many contend that with the level of oversight on food safety double and triple layered over many stages in the food supply chain that only an “Act of God” could have slipped this one in.  

“Nature beat us this time; it will beat us again,” said one grower in the Yuma area. “But we can’t stop our efforts to ensure food safety all along the chain.”

Another leafy greens grower also identified these two situations as outlier events, abnormal and rare occurrences. With 130 million salad servings a day, most days serving up food that poses no risk, that makes sense.  

And while the LGMAs cite a zero-tolerance level when it comes to food safety, it also goes to show the risks we will take and those, when it comes to food, we won’t. You and I will daily hop in our cars and trucks and accept a higher tolerance for risk because the benefits of having transportation far outweigh the risks despite 40,100 deaths by automobile in 2017.

80,000 Americans died from influenza during the 2017-18 season, the highest death toll from the flu in the last four decades. In recent years, flu-related deaths have ranged from 12,000 to 56,000. A heartbreaking number when I first studied these figures. But, even this news doesn’t keep us inside, away from the risks, during flu season.

These are risks we take on every day as Americans because we want to live a normal, successful, productive and rewarding life. And, when we sit down to a fresh green salad, our expectation is that at least our food isn’t at risk. Farmers will continue, therefore, to have a no-tolerance policy for food safety risk.

The industry continues to layer more safety “protocols” onto an already stellar food safety regimen in the food supply chain. But, these latest incidents mean we must be even more vigilant; never give up.

In the meantime, eat salad from the restaurant you just drove to after finally recovering from another flu bug. 

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