Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response (R), recently observed food safety procedures for leafy greens.
Photo courtesy of FDA

by Enrico Villamaino

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released its 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan. (STEC refers to Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, a potentially life-threatening illness).

Leafy greens, particularly romaine lettuce, are among the most frequently consumed vegetables in the nation. The FDA’s action plan, authored by Dr. Stephen Hahn, Commissioner of Food and Drugs, and Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, is meant to ensure that leafy greens remain a part of the overall healthy American diet while minimizing the risk of outbreaks in foodborne illnesses.

“We believe one foodborne illness outbreak is one too many,” said Hahn. “The FDA is committed to doing more.”

The FDA’s course of action is to work with both the produce industry and its partners in government. “Food safety is a shared responsibility that involves food producers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers and regulators,” Hahn explained. “We’ve previously called on the leafy green industry to do more, and meeting our own responsibility involves collaboration with state partners on education, training and inspections. This plan is designed to help foster a more urgent, collaborative and action-oriented approach.”

The action plan is broken into three main parts: Prevention, Response and Knowledge Gaps.

To address prevention, the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule institutes minimum standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce. The science-based standards enumerate regulations for biological soil amendments, animal intrusion policy, hygiene standards and equipment, tools and buildings protocols. These measures took effect in January 2020. Routine produce safety rule inspections will also be conducted.

Hahn further detailed, “Our prevention-focused plans in the leafy greens sector include providing education and technical assistance to industry and other stakeholders, with greater emphasis on the potential impact of adjacent land uses and continued emphasis on the importance of agricultural water quality.”

The response portion of the action plan will best be illustrated in the FDA’s forthcoming report on its investigation on three outbreaks of E. coli infections tied to romaine lettuce and leafy greens between November and December 2019. All three incidents were connected to the Salinas Valley, one of the most agriculturally productive regions in California. “We will also be conducting follow-up surveillance of fields in that region during this fall’s growing and harvesting season,” Hahn said.

Perhaps the most challenging piece of the action plan to implement is addressing the gaps in the current understanding of how contaminations take place. “Most leafy greens are grown outdoors,” said Hahn, “where they are exposed to soil, animals and water, all of which can be a source of contamination. Developing new science to learn how pathogens survive and move through the environment can help us protect these foods that are mostly eaten without cooking or processing to eliminate microbial hazards.”

Hahn added that the FDA is working with experts in state government, Cooperative Extension and academia to better understand the ecology of these pathogens.

Hahn also called attention to the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative, which is concerned with rapid traceback of contaminated foods to their source, and the enhancement of data analysis to better assist in prevention efforts.

“As public health officials, we are concerned by these recurring outbreaks and we believe all involved with the production and sale of fresh leafy greens can do better,” stated Hahn. “We have an unwavering commitment to protecting the health of the American public. The 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan demonstrates how we will honor that commitment. We are laser-focused on improving our prevention, response and research efforts with a multi-faceted approach to help keep leafy greens safe for generations to come.”

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