“In food safety, things did not go very well [in 2018],” says Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, DC.
She is referring, of course, to multiple foodborne illness outbreaks involving fresh produce.
High profile outbreaks occurred in the spring and late fall with E. coli-contaminated romaine lettuce. The first incident’s romaine was grown in the Yuma, AZ region, and the second was traced to California’s Central Coast.
Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in Sacramento, CA, says the event “had a profound effect on the entire leafy greens industry,” and worse yet, “the entire industry took a hit.”
Along with Arizona Leafy Greens, United Fresh, the Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers, and several other groups, LGMA launched the Leafy Greens Task Force in the aftermath of the romaine outbreak.
Its mission, according to Horsfall, was to look at what may have happened and to determine steps to be taken to prevent it from occurring again.
Recommendations ranged from undertaking further research to altering LGMA standards, such as tripling the distance between grazing cattle and growing areas, as well as more stringent standards for treating surface water in these areas.
Retail behemoth Walmart had a response of its own, announcing in late September that leafy green suppliers would have to start using blockchain to ensure better traceability of their shipments.
As if E. coli outbreaks weren’t enough, another area of concern is the cyclospora parasite, linked to a handful of intestinal illnesses. McEntire confirms several outbreaks last year tied to cilantro, salads, and cut fruit.
“Controlling and managing for this pathogen is challenging and will require more research efforts,” she says. “The industry and public health agencies are not fully equipped to deal with cyclospora, so that will be a focus this year and the next few years to come.”