Although the Center for Disease Control announced on January 9, 2019 that the recent e-coli outbreak is over, there is another part of the story that doesn’t seem to be getting allot of traction. During the investigation the FDA made the comment that based on the spread of the traceback it’s highly unlikely that it originated from a single farm. I don’t have any first-hand knowledge that hasn’t already been publicly disclosed, but I do understand how the produce supply chain works. A single source could be a possible scenario when you think through how one farm can go to multiple processors and terminal markets. There are two troubling allegations floating around about this outbreak that need put to rest.
First, that the only grower/shipper implicated so far was not a member of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). The LGMA recently sent out a statement confirming that is accurate so that’s not up for further debate. Since it was formed in 2006 the backbone of the LGMA has been that members voluntarily subject themselves to minimum food safety standards verified through unannounced inspections conducted by California Department of Public Health (CDPH) inspectors. The LGMA was never intended to stop all recalls but that through a HACCP type approach to continuously reduce risk starting at the field. Since the marketing agreement was voluntary the failsafe were the commitments made by some of the largest retailers and food service distributors at the time that their buy side would support LGMA members for West Coast sourced leafy greens.
Being a member of the LGMA is not cheap. One recent study suggested that the incremental cost per acre since 2006 to abide by all of the minimum food safety standards and inspections that come with LGMA is close to $180 per acre. A non-LGMA farm can have the most stringent standards in the industry on paper. However, without incurring the incremental costs associated with maintaining “trust but verify” standards, supported by unannounced site audits they would have a substantial cost advantage over LGMA members.
The second issue is how a non-LGMA member can get their leafy greens into the retail and food service channels. Just prior to the outbreak the romaine supply was extremely tight in many areas which was reflected in the USDA Mostly Market reports for romaine. Maybe it’s just coincidence, or maybe there is a hole in the process that the buy side needs to step up and address, especially when the industry is short. This is the second recall situation I am aware of in the past three years where the trace back implicated a California shipper/handler that was not an LGMA member.
I’m not suggesting that somehow LGMA members have a safer product than anyone else. I am suggesting that we owe it to ourselves as an industry and to consumers to ensure that everyone is at least working from the same floor. How high someone wants to go above that floor is an individual business decision. The LGMA may not be the perfect solution to maintaining minimum standards on an industry wide basis, but right now it’s the only solution.
If the buy side isn’t going to step up and support LGMA for leafy greens sourced from the West Coast, especially when supplies are tight, then maybe it’s time to rethink it. When everyone is allowed to revert back to their own standards, then we really have no standards which is where we were in 2006.