Salad Safety: Five Years Later

San Juan Bautista, CA – Driving past farmland in San Juan Bautista you quickly notice the well manicured perfection of each row of leafy green vegetables, like lettuce and kale. What you can't see is all the effort that goes into making that produce safe. There's the land assessment that looks for any risks; that happens before planting and harvest. Then there's the tests done on the soil and water. "The water that you see coming out of those sprinklers right now has been qualified as an appropriate source for irrigation water, and we are testing that water weekly to ensure that in fact is an appropriate source," said Will Daniels, the Senior Vice President of Quality, Food Safety and Organic Integrity at Earthbound Farm.

These are just some of the food safety practices that come from the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA). It was created after the deadly e.Coli outbreak of 2006. "It's not like people didn't do food safety before 2007 and now they do. There's just uniformity. It's more widespread accountability than there was before because there was no government oversight over that side of the business, and that's all in place now," said Scott Horsfall, the Chief Executive Office of the California LGMA. Horsfall says the program has worked extremely well over the last few years and points to the fact that there hasn't been a major outbreak since the LGMA started. Here's how the LGMA works. When companies like Earthbound Farm sign the voluntary agreement, all its growers must follow the LGMA food safety practices and undergo government inspections. This system covers about 99% of all leafy greens grown in California. The remaining 1% of are generally grown by smaller farms.

San Juan Bautista's Coke Farm is part of that 1%. Founder and farmer Dale Coke says through the course of a year he grows about 50 different organic crops, including leafy greens like lettuce and kale. While the farm has its own set of food safety measures, it does not participate in the LGMA. Participating in the program can be costly. But for Coke, it's more about principle. First, the cause of the 2006 e.Coli outbreak in Spinach was never discovered. "Until you know how the pathogen travels, you can't really promulgate these rules even though they sound like they're good and everybody wants safe food. You don't want to do those things that are exercise in futility," said Coke. Furthermore, the LGMA doesn't address what he sees as a potential source of the problem: bagged salads. In the last year, the FDA had only five leafy green recalls, all were bagged. "You know to me it doesn't make sense. It's the category of pre-cut bagged washed salad that's shown to occasionally have problems, so it doesn't make any sense to try to name certain crops that could be used in it. It should be the bagged salad that's the issue," said Coke.

The LGMA's Scott Horsfall says this program was designed specifically to focus on the field; it's the FDA that regulates processing. He says since the program started, Americans have consumed more than 200 billion servings of leafy greens with little problem. "Well fundamentally we look at food safety as a shared responsibility of everybody who grows food. A pathogen doesn't know or care whether a farm is large or small," said Horsfall.

Back in the Earthbound field, Will Daniels says he doesn't think the LGMA alone is the answer. "It's certainly phenomenal steps in the right direction. It hasn't been the answer because there continues to be recalls and outbreaks associated with produce," said Daniels. At Earthbound, the food safety standards go far beyond the LGMA with extra tests in the field and a long list of tests and checks as the greens are cleaned and packaged. And Daniels says the company is constantly looking for more ways to improve.

The California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement has served as a model for a similar program in Arizona and now a proposed national program. The comment period on the National LGMA ends today.