In testing retail samples of leafy greens, Consumer Reports found Listeria monocytogenes on six samples, and the Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the organization’s data.
Acme, Costco, Hannaford and Whole Foods were among the supermarkets from which Consumer Reports bought 284 leafy greens samples it tested. It conducted the tests because of the recent spate of foodborne illness outbreaks linked to leafy greens.
Of the samples testing positive for listeria, two were pre-washed and packaged, and the other four were loose heads or bunches. The packaged items were spinach and an organic spring mix with spinach, and the bulk products were green kale, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce and spinach.
According to Consumer Reports, one sample that tested positive for listeria had a strain genetically linked to two illnesses reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Consumer Reports, that finding triggered an FDA inspection at the processing facility.
The FDA declined to answer specific questions about the inspection and results, but press officer Peter Cassell provided the following statement: “We continue to look at the data provided by Consumer Reports. The FDA takes the presence of harmful pathogens in our food supply very seriously and considers the risk to public health when taking action.
“In regard to leafy greens specifically, the FDA continues to recommend that leafy green growers, buyer/shippers and retailers be able to trace product back to the specific source in real time and make information about the source, such as harvest date and standardized growing regions, readily available for consumers on either packaging, point-of-sale signs or by other means,” the FDA wrote. “We’re pleased to see many companies in the leafy green industry take voluntary steps to quickly respond to our previous recommendations. We believe this is the best approach in order to be able to inform consumers should there be any future risks to public health.”
Leafy greens suppliers adopted origin labeling for packaged products after the FDA in November called for a halt to all romaine harvesting, processing, packing, shipping and sales to purge the supply chain of any potentially contaminated product because the agency could not quickly determine the source.
Companies lost millions of dollars as a result, and the industry is concerned about the potential for a decline in consumer confidence.
Hilary Thesmar, senior vice president of food safety programs for the Food Marketing Institute, said in a statement that “retailers take these survey results very seriously and it is not their intention to contribute to a breakdown of trust they work so hard to foster among their shoppers.
“While there is currently no government safety advisory, the incidents outlined in Consumer Reports of finding listeria in bulk lettuce reminds us that the entire supply chain has a responsibility for safe food handling.”
She noted that shoppers should wash bulk lettuce but not pre-washed packaged lettuce, which should already be free of pathogens like listeria.
“Food safety management is an involved and ever-evolving process,” Thesmar wrote. “Earlier this year, the FMI board of directors provided us with direction to help prevent contamination of leafy greens; to increase communication across the entire supply chain; to protect consumers and the safety of products; and to effectively respond to food safety incidents, should they occur again.”
Suppliers have also worked to evaluate current processes and strengthen food safety protections.
In April, the members of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement voted to adopt additional food safety requirements, particularly related to irrigation water.
The FDA, in its response to the findings by Consumer Reports, urged the industry to keep up the efforts to optimize food safety.
“The FDA also continues to strongly recommend that all segments of the leafy greens industry thoroughly review current operations, procedures, policies and practices taking into consideration the findings of the agency’s recently issued investigation report regarding the November 2018 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in California-linked romaine lettuce, the FSMA Produce Safety Rule, the FSMA Preventive Controls for Human Foods Rule and other relevant FSMA regulations,” the agency wrote.
“Other available science-based information relevant to the reduction or elimination of human pathogens on leafy greens should also be considered. In addition, industry should make the necessary modifications to operations, procedures, policies and practices to ensure safe products for consumers and minimize the likelihood of outbreaks in the future,” according to the FDA.