Health & Human Services

Food-Safety Audits Keep Leafy Greens Clean

Consumption of leafy green vegetables is growing, as is the risk of E. coli contamination. California and Arizona are taking the lead in keeping them clean.
by | May 2012

In 2006, California made headlines -- and not in a good way. A nationwide E. coli outbreak was linked back to a farm in San Juan Bautista, a small city of fewer than 2,000 people about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco. Though the outbreak was pinpointed to spinach from a specific field processed on a specific day, the exact cause was never confirmed. The disease sickened at least 205 people in 26 states and led to three deaths.

Leafy greens -- arugula, kale, chard, spinach and the like -- have grown in popularity as people seek more varied and healthful food options. But the downside has been an increase in leafy green E. coli outbreaks that have happened with alarming regularity over the past 15 years, according to Food Poison Journal. That’s not good news for a $32 billion a year industry.

Following the San Juan Bautista outbreak, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) worked with the industry to create the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (now simply referred to as LGMA), establishing a mandatory audit program that certifies that farmers, shippers and processors of leafy greens are implementing up-to-date food safety practices developed by university and industry scientists, food safety experts and farmers. It is a way for the more than 8,000 farms that harvested 433,000 acres of leafy green veggies for the fresh food market in 2007 -- the most recent year data was available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) -- to rebuild confidence among consumers and buyers.

Once a shipper or processor joins the LGMA, it must sell and ship products only from farmers who comply with a certain set of food safety standards. These standards follow metrics related to environmental assessments, such as water usage, soil amendments, crop treatments and field sanitation. Field audits have always been part of the CDFA’s mission, previously averaging 60 per year, but with the creation of the LGMA, the number of audits has increased tenfold since the 2006 outbreak, says CDFA Director Rick Jensen.

Audits, which consist of around 300 questions, typically involve visits to two or three different farms a day that are in various stages of production, including harvesting. Once a farmer passes an audit, he is awarded a service mark that accompanies the leafy green products to buyers such as Safeway, SaveMart and other grocery store chains. Initially, however, the process that awarded these seals was slow and clunky. It relied heavily on the auditors themelves to transcribe field findings to electronic form, and communicate those findings to multiple stakeholders. Farmers had no way of viewing the status of an audit, and final findings were stored in electronic and paper form in multiple locations, making them hard to find. But that’s changed, thanks to the LGMA.

A new Web-based system went live in 2008. Called the Leafy Green Inspection Tracking System, it completely reengineered the way the state schedules, captures, stores, tracks and disseminates information from leafy green audits. It has two main benefits: efficiency and immediacy. “It’s much more streamlined,” says Jensen. The result has reduced the process time of an audit from a week to 24 hours. Farmers, shippers and processors can view all information in real time as it is entered. The USDA can even view audits at its discretion.

The system is funded with user fees from the CDFA’s Shipping Point Inspection Program, which handles all farm audits. The fees cover expenses associated with program operations, including $300,000 in software development costs. Jensen describes that development as an ongoing process. Currently audits are done the old-fashioned way -- using pen and paper. Auditors tested rugged laptops, but found them heavy and the screens difficult to read in the bright sunlight. The LGMA does have plans “to make the system compatible and user friendly with today’s newer and lighter mobile devices,” he says.

California isn’t the only state trying to clean up its produce. Arizona has followed the Golden State’s lead, implementing its own LGMA and, soon, its own online auditing system. While the Arizona program is a voluntary one initiated by the industry, according to the Arizona Department of Agriculture, there was a 97 percent participation rate in 2011. Similar in design to California’s program, Arizona growers and shippers must comply with strict requirements and pass regular audits before receiving an official mark to signify participation and qualification. Other states, including Florida and Texas, have expressed interest in adopting the Web-based auditing system.

Jensen says the key to successful adoption is just to “really understand your internal processes and the various business rules -- you need to follow those. If you don’t know those, you can’t build the future.”

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