Is Lettuce Safe to Eat?
Today I put on my boots, jeans and a jacket in preparation for a tour at Taylor Farms. It was one of many farm tours I had been on since starting my internship with Markon. Markon distributes high quality produce to foodservice companies. They would regularly organize farm tours to educate their employees on the different processes within the produce industry. This time we were going to see romaine lettuce getting chopped up, cleaned, and then put into salad bags. When I got to the farm’s facility, they had me put on a hair net, gloves, safety vest and a bright orange hard hat. It did not go with my outfit but hey, there is not much I can do to plan for hard hats. Before heading into the doors of the facility, I had to step into a foot bath filled with a solution to kill germs. I gave up on trying to keep my boots dry after the second or third foot bath. We walked through each step of the process and from the first step to the last, everything was sparkling clean. As a result, I concluded that the facility is cleaner than my own kitchen.
In light of the 2018 outbreaks, it might be hard to write down "romaine lettuce” on your shopping list without slight hesitation. This month, the FDA declared that the E-Coli linked to romaine lettuce in the Central Coast growing regions of California seem to be over.
The U.S. is one of the safest food suppliers in the world but produce is grown out doors and it can become contaminated at any point along the farm-to-table process. During another one of Markon’s tours, I went on a field inspection. This one was to a field of iceberg lettuce. The inspector I was with noticed that there were telephone poles in the middle of the field. When we walked over to the rows under the wires, we found bird poop. The birds would sit on the wires above the field and poop on the rows of lettuce below. She called the grower and told them not to harvest that block of the field. The grower agreed without hesitation.
There are a lot of food safety practices that have to be followed. These are just some of the ones that farmers stay in compliance with:
the U.S. government’s Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA)
Food and farming community standards
Safety metrics from customers.
GFSI-compliant (Global Food Safety Initiative) and are audited every year
in addition to the food safety practices seen in the table below, the industry took an extra step and started following a new voluntary labeling agreement. These labels identify the region grown and the approximate harvest date.
When an outbreak happens, it is usually the result of one contaminated source. Problem is that it makes us, the consumers, think that all lettuce is bad. Farmers reached out to let me know how they were affected by that. Some said that they did not harvest their lettuce fields because no one would buy it. Therefore they did not have any work for the harvest crews and they ended up throwing away safe lettuce, leading to a market crash.
How can we prevent getting sick from infected lettuce and stop wasting the safe lettuce during an outbreak moving forward in 2019? The best thing we can do is pay attention to the region and date that the FDA names as the source of an outbreak. Then look for the new labels on the bags or price tags of romaine lettuce in the grocery store. If the region and date are different than that of the infected lettuce, then it is not related to the outbreak.
I trust our farmers. They have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. It takes a lot of work to keep our food safe and I am impressed by the strict food safety guidelines farmers follow.