Recalled lettuce grown in Salinas Valley?

The Monterey County Herald is reporting tonight that two of the three lettuces in a Dole bagged salad mix recalled this week were grown in the Salinas Valley. If confirmed, it means that whatever shreds of credibility the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement had will vanish.

As it should.

Top-down approaches rarely work and require a lot of muscle to succeed — and that isn’t going to happen in the reality of competing government resources.

Politicos like Senator Tom Harkin or Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.-3), and lobhyists like the Center for Science in the Public Interest can chatter all they want inside the Beltway but that isn’t going to matter much in America’s salad bowl. Especially on the farms, where E. coli O157:H7 contamination invariably begins.

Any hope that the safety of leafy greens will improve after 29 outbreaks over the past 15 years has nothing to do with calls for government inspections, new technology, or even pledges by growers to be extra super special careful. It can be found in the final report on the fall 2006 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach (, which sickened 205 and killed three

The first line of defense is the farm, not the consumer. Since 1998, American consumers have been told to FightBac, that is to fight the dangerous bacteria and virus and parasites found in a variety of foods, by cooking, cleaning, chilling and separating their food. Solid advice, but limited.

(Coincidentally, the FightBac folks were today congratulating themselves back in the Beltway on their consumer messaging — yet, produce peanut butter and pet food are not consumer issues, just like the lettuce today.)

Fresh fruits and vegetables are good for us; we should eat more. Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most significant source of foodborne illness today in North America. Because fresh produce is just that – fresh, and not cooked — anything that comes into contact is a possible source of contamination. Every mouthful of fresh produce is an act of faith — especially faith in the growers — because once that E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella gets on, or inside, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts or melons, it is exceedingly difficult to remove.

In 2004, Salmonella-contaminated Roma tomatoes used in prepared sandwiches sold at Sheetz convenience stores throughout Pennsylvania sickened over 400 consumers. The FightBac folks told the public that, "In all cases, the first line of defense to reduce risk of contracting foodborne illness is to cook, clean, chill and separate."

Consumers were being told that when they stop by a convenience store and grab a ready-made sandwich, they should take it apart, grab the tomato slice, wash it, and reassemble the sandwich.
Which would have done nothing to remove the Salmonella inside the tomatoes. The fall 2006 outbreaks finally focused the buying public on the farm. Top-down approaches like audits and marketing agreements may appease worried buyers but do little to foster a culture on each and every farm that values microbiologically safe food.

The recommended best practices for growing safe produce need to be practiced every day on every farm. That was a key message out of the California report. New manuals, guidelines and plans are not required; what is essential is that farmers and their staff follow the already established good agricultural practices on a daily basis. Yes more research is important, yes there are new technologies to be utilized, but given that produce is being pooled from multiple growers at the packing shed, how can consumers be assured that every grower is doing what they say they are doing? Calls for mandatory government inspection is akin to mandatory restaurant inspection — it sets a bare minimum standard, is a snapshot in time, and has little to do with future outbreaks of food poisoning.

Rules and regulations look pretty on paper. But they are not comforting to those 76 million Americans who get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year. Instead, every grower, packer, distributor, retailer and consumer needs to adopt a culture that actually values safe food.

Top down approaches to food safety are cumbersome and ineffective.

The first company that can assure consumers they aren’t eating poop on spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and any other fresh produce, will make millions and capture markets.