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Consumer Reports probes leafy green industry

Illustration by Pamela Riemenschneider

In the aftermath of the 2019 salmonella outbreak in romaine lettuce, the easiest option is to forget about it. But that isn’t feasible. Another is to take a good look at consumer opinion.

One way of doing this is through Consumer Reports (CR), the name for both the magazine and the consumer’s advocacy organization that publishes it. Consumer Reports is both a gauge and an influencer of public opinion.

The magazine has paid close attention to the romaine outbreak: its website lists a “2018 consumer warning to avoid romaine lettuce” as a major victory.

In a cover story on leafy greens safety for the March 2020 issue by Kevin Loria, the magazine reported results of a 2019 survey of 1,003 Americans: “52 percent admitted being concerned about getting sick from leafy greens—more than those who are worried about poisonings from beef, chicken, or eggs.”

It went on to cite statistics from the Centers for Disease Control saying that one out of six Americans each year gets sick from something they ate.

Leafy greens have been so problematic partly because Americans eat so much of them, notes the CR article, noting that 130 million servings are shipped every day. Furthermore, the vast majority are consumed uncooked. Romaine may be an especially difficult case because its delicate leaves are more susceptible to bacterial infection when damaged.

The culprit, as is well known in the industry, is almost certainly E. coli bacteria from nearby livestock operations that make their way into the greens’ water supply.

The article describes increased safety measures adopted by the industry’s Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) BB #:210653 after the outbreaks of 2018. It notes that the minimum buffer zone between large livestock operations and fields of leafy greens was tripled from 400 feet to 1,200 feet. Furthermore, it noted, “if water is going to be used for irrigation in the 21 days before harvest, it needs to be tested at least once and treated if bacteria are found.”

Nevertheless, CR spokespeople quoted in the article argue that the industry’s self-regulatory efforts are insufficient. “We know it’s a complicated problem,” says James M. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety and research and testing at CR. “But this system is broken, and there are things that should be done that aren’t being done.”

“The FDA needs to implement the stricter water testing rules that were laid out in the Food Safety Modernization Act,” says CR senior scientist Michael Hansen, PhD. These rules were supposed to take effect in 2018, but implementation now has been pushed back to at least 2022. “The delay is unacceptable,” he adds.

CR also advocates passage of legislation by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) that aims to strengthen the FDA’s ability to pinpoint bacteria sources, for example, by giving it the power to inspect neighboring livestock operations—which it does not now have.

Here we see a tension that is common in many segments of American business. On the one hand, there is an industry that resents government interference and prefers to regulate itself (as with the LGMA, whose spokesmen say that it has been adopted by producers who account for 97 percent of the crop).

On the other hand are consumers’ organizations, which mistrust industry self-regulation and believe that the only solution is to strengthen the hand of government regulators—in this case, the FDA.

These differences are not going away anytime soon, although the balance of power between one interest and the other shifts depending on who is in power in Washington.

Growers and shippers often say that the American public needs to realize how much the industry cares about food safety. Very likely, however, the public isn’t interested in how much the industry cares; they are only interested in what works.

A CR poll found that “25 percent of those who were aware of the 2018 outbreaks said they eat lettuce less often now than before.”

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.