The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a Leafy Green STEC Action Plan on March 5. 

Between 2009 and 2018, the FDA and Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC) identified 40 foodborne outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) in the U.S. with a confirmed or suspected link to leafy greens. 

STEC can cause potentially deadly conditions such as bloody diarrhea, anemia, blood-clotting problems and kidney failure. Since most leafy greens are consumed raw, grown outdoors and exposed to soil, animals and water which can all be potential sources of contamination, the FDA developed a specific action plan to avoid outbreaks of STEC stemming from leafy greens. 

The plan focuses on prevention, response and addressing knowledge gaps in 2020. 

Prevention is geared toward advancing agricultural water safety; enhancing inspection; auditing and certification programs; engaging retailers in strengthening their buyer specifications; better sharing data; enhanced surveys for STEC detection and sampling protocols; increased awareness and addressing of concerns of adjacent land use; and establishing outreach and communications programs for stakeholders in growing regions.  

The plan’s response tactics include publishing an investigation report on the outbreak in the Salinas Valley in California; conducting follow-up surveillance during the fall 2020 California growing season; promoting tech-enabled traceability; improving utilization of shopper card data; accelerating whole genome sequencing data submission; advancing root cause analysis activities; and enhancing outbreak and recall communications. 

The FDA also plans to address knowledge gaps by conducting longitudinal studies; data mining and analytics on previous outbreaks; gathering information on adjacent and nearby land use; and compost sampling assignment with California. 

Shortly after the plan was released, it was endorsed by FMI – The Food Industry Association. 

 “FMI will champion industry efforts to influence supplier and grower food safety practices and enhance regulatory engagement throughout the supply chain,” says Hilary Thesmar, chief food and product safety officer and senior vice president for food safety at FMI. “We support the agency’s action plan as a tool that will further the food industry’s focus on foodborne illness prevention efforts and strengthen food safety around leafy greens.” 

As a result of the FDA’s plan, FMI created the FMI Recommended Food Safety Practices for Leafy Greens guide to assist in further preventing contamination of leady greens. 

“The primary goal of all retailers and wholesalers is to maintain the health and safety of its customers,” Thesmar says. “The romaine lettuce outbreaks and consumer advisories that led to complete product withdrawals from the market in 2018 and 2019 were devastating to retailers and wholesalers, the produce industry and consumers. We look forward to our continued work with the FDA on its New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative and blueprint.”