On March 5, 2020, FDA released the 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan, outlining steps the agency plans to take this year to advance the safety of leafy greens. While most strains of E. coli are harmless, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, can be life-threatening. The most common STEC, E. coli O157:H7, is the type most often associated with outbreaks.
Fresh leafy greens are an important part of an overall healthy diet. While millions of servings of leafy greens are consumed safely every day, this produce commodity has been too often implicated in outbreaks of foodborne illness. Between 2009 and 2018, FDA and CDC identified 40 foodborne outbreaks of STEC infections with a confirmed or suspected link to leafy greens in the U.S.
In an FDA Voices statement, Commissioner of Food and Drugs Stephen Hahn, M.D., and Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas, said, “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. We also hope to issue proposed revisions to FSMA’s agricultural water requirements, for covered produce other than sprouts, in 2020. We extended the compliance dates for those provisions to address feedback about practical challenges in implementing the requirements.”
In the area of response, FDA will be publishing an investigation report on three outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 infections tied to romaine lettuce and leafy greens between November and December 2019, each of which was tied to the Salinas Valley in California. FDA also will be conducting follow-up surveillance of fields in that region during this fall’s growing/harvest season, the statement said.
“While we must act to help prevent and respond to STEC outbreaks with current knowledge, gaps remain in our understanding of how environmental pathogens, including STEC, can contaminate produce,” the statement said, explaining that most leafy greens are grown outdoors, 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. FDA is already working with experts in state government, cooperative extension and academia to better understand the ecology of pathogens in the Yuma, Arizona, growing region. Discussions have been initiated to conduct the same research in other leafy greens growing regions.
Additionally, the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative aims to foster rapid traceback of contaminated foods to their source and enhance the analysis of data streams to inform prevention efforts. FDA also intends to hold a webinar in coming weeks to further discuss the action plan with interested stakeholders. More information, including how to register for the webinar, will be available on FDA.gov.