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Debra Born headshot

Leafy Greens the Target of New Foodborne Illness Action Plan

By Debra Born
Leafy Greens

Indeed, the U.S. is undergoing an unprecedented public health crisis, yet the need to ensure a safe food supply is clearer now that ever. A foodborne illness outbreak now, related to anything from meats to leafy greens, would devastate stores and consumers already reeling over the possibility of having to practice social distancing for weeks, if not months on end.

To that end, after several recent instances of food recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is targeting leafy greens in a new action plan. A recent statement by the Commissioner of Food and Drugs and the Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response says leafy greens are the cause of “too many foodborne illnesses.” The FDA is responding with a multi-faceted 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan. (STEC stands for Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, which can cause serious health conditions or even death.)

Leafy greens are some of the most widely eaten vegetables, and consumers can normally eat them without becoming sick. However, romaine lettuce and other leafy greens are still too often implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks, according to the FDA, which says the entire industry’s supply chain can do better. 

But the FDA infers that the buck doesn’t stop at the growers and sellers. “Food safety is a shared responsibility that involves food producers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers and regulators,” the FDA stated on the website.

Hence, the FDA’s new action plan.

New standards for leafy greens producers

The FDA plans to collaborate with stakeholders in the public and private sectors to deliver a more unified response to the issue.

This action plan expands the standards of the Food Safety Modernization Act's Produce Safety Rule and outlines steps to address foodborne illness prevention, response and “knowledge gaps.” 

The prevention piece will address education and technical aid to stakeholders and other companies. The plan’s response actions will include publishing a report of three E. coli outbreaks linked to leafy greens in the last two months of 2019. Science and research efforts will also be developed to breach gaps in understanding how pathogens can contaminate produce. The FDA will be working with industry partners to complete these steps.

Highlights of the plan also include efforts to increase water safety, food safety education and food cleanliness.

On the producer’s end, leafy greens growers can expect a greater emphasis on crop inspection to pinpoint gaps in food safety practices. 

Responding to a food outbreak crisis

As foodborne outbreaks increase, the FDA has been challenging producers to step up their game when it comes to food safety. Growers have been slowly responding with preventative efforts to keep contaminants away from the vegetables, but the disturbing number of people getting sick from tainted leafy greens has given the sector a black eye. When foodborne illnesses move past prevention and into an outbreak, how are producers responding?

Dole is one producer of fresh fruits and vegetables that has been affected by numerous recalls of romaine lettuce that was grown in certain areas of the U.S. When the FDA released an advisory to consumers to avoid romaine lettuce in 2018, Dole made three promises to consumers: to only ship produce grown in areas not listed in the FDA advisory; to clearly label all romaine lettuce with the harvest date and growing region; and to follow up with retailers to ask that any unwrapped heads of romaine lettuce be clearly labeled. 

Although leafy greens are often implicated, other foods are also prone to contaminants if they are not grown, distributed or prepared correctly.

Going beyond the bags of lettuce

Chipotle is a classic example of a food company’s response to foodborne illness outbreaks, as the fast-casual chain has cropped up in the news multiple times for food poisoning. One of the latest outbreaks was two years ago, when 647 people became ill after eating food that was left out at unsafe temperatures. The restaurant chain responded to the outbreak by closing the restaurant and announcing that its employees across the country would be retrained, NPR reported.

Chipotle’s response is typical of companies that make the news for serving contaminated food. The CDC says the actions food companies take are two-pronged – to attempt to stop the food poisoning in its tracks and prevent future outbreaks. Actions may include retraining staff, recalling food, stopping processing, cleaning and disinfecting facilities and equipment, altering the company’s method of operations, or all the above. Food meant for the market may require a slightly different response and recalling produce off the shelves is often — and should be — the first step.

Everyone can relate to food poisoning. According to the FDA, about one in six Americans become sick from a foodborne illness. The solution to reducing the risk of outbreaks can become a long and complicated answer. However, the bottom line, according to the FDA, is that “faster and more thorough and helpful responses to outbreaks are needed.”

How will we know if FDA’s latest plan is successful? A decline of foodborne illnesses that are linked to the leafy greens sector would be a start. Don’t hold your breath, but let’s see what this plan can do, as securing public health has been more important than ever before.

Image credit: Pixabay

Debra Born headshot

Debra is a writer and public relations professional based in Upstate New York. Her other interests include graphic design, photography, nature and animals. You can find her on LinkedIn

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