Tuesday, June 2, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 13

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on June 5th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 14 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 14

Local farmer discusses new regulations for lettuce growers in wake of E. coli outbreaks


Last year wasn’t an easy one for U.S. lettuce farmers. 

In the spring of 2018, an E. coli outbreak that was linked back to contaminated romaine lettuce caused nearly 210 reported illnesses, 96 hospitalizations, and five deaths across 36 states. Just months after that outbreak was declared over, in June 2018, another strain of E. coli spread across the nation—again through romaine—causing 62 reported illnesses and 25 hospitalizations in 16 states. 

In direct response to those outbreaks and subsequent investigations, the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a voluntary membership program that works to ensure the safety of California-grown leafy greens, is implementing a set of more stringent food safety regulations that member farms will be required to follow. 

Dan Sutton, a Central Coast farmer and general manager of the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, chairs the LGMA. Sutton said the new guidelines, which were approved by the LGMA’s board on April 19, will largely impact the way farmers handle open water sources—reservoirs, creeks, and canals similar to those that the 2018 E. coli outbreaks were attributed to. 

“We’re doing this because we want to make sure the produce we’re growing and putting out into commerce are the safest we can do,” Sutton told the Sun

Part of that, Sutton said, is accepting that “not all water is created equal.” 

Although it had a lesser impact on the nation as a whole, the second outbreak of 2018 hit closer to home for many Santa Barbara County residents. In December of last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that sediment from a reservoir near Adam Brothers Farming tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, the same strain that was first reported to be present in contaminated romaine lettuce a month earlier. 

The Santa Maria-based farm stated in a press release that while filtered and treated water from the reservoir may have come in contact with the farm’s produce after it was harvested, none of the filtered water tested positive for E. coli. 

On Feb. 13, the FDA released its final report on the outbreak, which deduced that while investigators weren’t sure of the exact E. coli source, water from the Adam Brothers’ reservoir most likely led to the contamination of some romaine lettuce that led to illness. The FDA came to a similar conclusion in its investigation into the first romaine outbreak of 2018, which found that contaminated water in an Arizona irrigation canal likely led to the spread of E. coli. 

Farmers use a number of different water sources for irrigation, Sutton said, from open creeks and reservoirs to closed underground wells, which contain water that isn’t exposed to the environment until pumped out onto crops. 

The LGMA’s new guidelines will require farmers to categorize water sources, consider how and when water is applied to the crop, conduct testing to ensure that water is safe for the intended use, sanitize water if necessary, and verify that all of the above precautions have been taken. 

One of the most significant changes, according to Sutton, is the LGMA’s new requirement that if an open water source is being used on crops within 21 days of harvest, the water must be treated. 

The new regulations are in line with the LGMA’s core mission, Sutton said. 

The LGMA launched in 2007, after an E. coli outbreak in spinach sickened hundreds of people. At the time, leafy greens growers faced the threat of forced government restrictions in response to the outbreak. Sutton said industry leaders instead came together to develop the food safety requirements that LGMA members abide by today. 

Membership in the LGMA is voluntary, but members must adhere to strict food safety codes and pass compliance audits about five to six times a year.

Sutton’s farm, the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, is just one of about 14 produce farms from Lompoc to the Five Cities area that are certified LGMA members and will have to adhere to the new regulations. Adam Brothers Farming is not listed as a member on the LGMA’s website. 

While Sutton said the new regulations will impact each farm differently, growers who use open water sources will need to make the biggest changes. 

“For all growers,” he said, “we’ll need to get a little more in depth for understanding our water and water delivery systems.”

At the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, Sutton said he and his staff will be updating the water testing protocol, and they are looking for ways to address the open water sources they’ve used in the past. They may treat that open source water in the future, he said, or implement a drip irrigation system so that the water doesn’t actually come in contact with the leaves of the produce. 

Sutton doesn’t expect consumers to see any major changes in lettuce prices because of these regulations, although he said some farmers may incur some additional expenses. 

With board approval, the LGMA is already working toward implementing its new food safety regulations. Leafy greens farmers will have a chance to give feedback and ask questions for the next several weeks, Sutton said, and the LGMA conducted implementation training events across California throughout the last week of May, including one at the Radisson in Santa Maria on May 29. 

The LGMA auditors need to be trained, and Sutton said the regulations should be fully implemented within about 60 days. 

“In the leafy greens community, we want to get this done,” Sutton said. “It was important to us that we do this as quickly as possible.” 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.

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