The produce industry must learn from the 2018 outbreaks

Many people will remember 2018 as a year of dealing with crushing food safety problems.

For romaine lettuce, the year started with an E. coli outbreak tied to product grown in Yuma, AZ, and finished with the fallout from a California outbreak that had the Food and Drug Administration telling consumers to avoid all romaine the week before Thanksgiving.

The latter one was so high profile, ahead of the country’s biggest eating occasion, that it may take some time for the category to recover.

“I fear there has been a loss of trust and consumer confidence,” said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology at United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, DC, Dec. 27.

“It’s been a month since romaine has been back on shelves with labels,” she said, and she’s been hearing consumer demand has been weak. “My own mother was asking me if romaine is safe to eat.”

McEntire said the produce industry has certainly learned some lessons from the 2018 outbreaks.

“There’s been a spotlight on water,” she said. “The FDA and CDC found both Yuma and California outbreak strains in the water.”

She said the industry must take the issue of water off the table for causing outbreaks, and that means food safety experts coming up with a tool kit for growers and processors to make water use safer.

“For the rest of the industry, pretty much everyone uses water,” she said, so it goes far beyond the lettuce and leafy green industries.

Another result should be the fruit and vegetable producers working with animal agriculture to co-exist.

“We live in a community and all are related,” McEntire said. “I believe we can work together.”

She said it may be more successful for leaders in the two groups to meet and cooperate without much publicity, and it would be even more effective if buyers who sell all kinds of food to consumers could lead discussions.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services Inc.