FDA Outlines Plan to Advance Safety of Leafy Greens

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ripe organic green salad Romano on a cutting board

Silver Spring, MD—FDA has outlined a 2020 action plan to help advance the safety of leafy greens.

FDA notes in their plan that leafy greens like romaine lettuce are safely consumed daily, but that the produce has often been implicated in outbreaks of foodborne illness—for instance, the recurring outbreaks of E. coli 0157:H7 tied to romaine lettuce.

As such, Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., Commissioner of the FDA, and Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, released a statement regarding the 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan, which spells out the actions FDA plans to take in the areas of prevention, response, and addressing knowledge gaps.

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Prevention: FDA will be taking further steps to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, which established science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce. This includes biological soil amendments; animal intrusion; hygiene; and equipment, tools, and buildings. Small businesses should be in compliance as of January; 2020 marks the second year of conducting routine Produce Safety Rule inspections for covered farms with earlier compliance dates.

Plans in this area include providing education and technical assistance to industry and other stakeholders, with emphasis on the potential impact of adjacent land uses and continued emphasis on the importance of agricultural water quality. FDA also hopes to issue proposed revisions to FSMA’s agricultural water requirements for covered produce other than sprouts this year; FDA extended the compliance dates for those provisions in order to address feedback about practical challenges in implementing the requirements.

Response: FDA will soon be publishing an investigation report on three outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 infections tied to romaine lettuce and leafy greens at the end of 2019. Each was tied to the Salinas Valley in California. FDA intends to conduct follow-up surveillance of fields in that region during this year’s growing/harvest season.

Knowledge Gaps: FDA intends to develop new science to learn how pathogens survive and move through the environment, which can help protect the foods that are eaten without cooking or processing to eliminate microbial hazards. FDA is already working with experts in state government, cooperative extension, and academia to better understand the ecology of pathogens in the Yuma, Arizona growing region. FDA has initiated discussions to conduct the same research in other leafy greens growing regions.

The statement concludes: “As public health officials, we are concerned by these recurring outbreaks and we believe all involved with the production and sale of fresh leafy greens can do better. As people who have children of our own, we are heartbroken about the families whose lives have been forever changed by these illnesses.

“We have an unwavering commitment to protecting the health of the American public. The 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan demonstrates how we will honor that commitment. We are laser-focused on improving our prevention, response and research efforts with a multi-faceted approach to help keep leafy greens safe for generations to come.”

The plan has not gone without industry comment—FMI, The Food Industry Association, released comments from Hilary Thesmar, Ph.D., R.D., CFS, Chief Food and Product Safety Officer and SVP of Food Safety: “FMI will champion industry efforts to influence supplier and grower food safety practices and enhance regulatory engagement throughout the supply chain. We support the agency’s action plan as a tool that will further the food industry’s focus on foodborne illness prevention efforts and strengthen food safety around leafy greens.

“The primary goal of all retailers and wholesalers is to maintain the health and safety of its customers,” Thesmar continued. “The romaine lettuce outbreaks and consumer advisories that led to complete product withdrawals from the market in 2018 and 2019 were devastating to retailers and wholesalers, the produce industry, and consumers. As a result, we created the FMI Recommended Food Safety Practices for Leafy Greens guide to assist in preventing contamination of leafy greens, to increase communication across the entire supply chain, to protect consumers and the safety of the products they consume, and to facilitate effective response to food safety incidents should they occur again. We look forward to our continued work with the FDA on its New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative and blueprint.”

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