FDA steps up spinach safety efforts

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the California
Department of Public Health last week announced they will extend
their produce safety efforts with a broader focus on leafy greens,
including spinach.

Beginning this month, governmental and state investigators will visit farms in California to assess risk factors for contamination of leafy greens with E coli, a potentially fatal foodborne bacterium. The agency also aims to assess the extent to which Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and other preventive controls are being implemented, and to identify areas where risk factors are present. The move forms the next step in a multi-year initiative by FDA and the State of California's Departments of Public Health and Food and Agriculture to reduce public health risks by focusing on preventive food safety efforts. These efforts kicked off last year with a focus on lettuce. The Lettuce Safety Initiative came in response to recurring outbreaks of E coli O157:H7 associated with fresh and fresh-cut lettuce. The new focus on spinach will build upon lessons learned in the first year, subsequent outbreak investigations, and the FDA's 2007 Tomato Safety Initiative, which is underway in Virginia and Florida. An outbreak of E coli in September last year was traced back to packaged cut spinach originating from California. The outbreak killed three people and sickened more than 200 people across the US. The outbreak has since been traced back to a 50-acre spinach plot. The contaminated strain has been found in a nearby stream, in cattle feces and in wild pigs, officials said. In addition, during November to December last year, lettuce contaminated with E coli was blamed for infecting at least 48 Taco Bell customers in five states. Components of the new initiative include: continuing outreach with the industry at all points in the supply chain ; communicating early and often in the event of an outbreak or recall; and continuing to build and strengthen collaborative relationships with federal, state and local public health officials in disease prevention, detection, and outbreak response. "By identifying practices and conditions that can lead to product contamination, FDA and our safety partners can improve guidance and policies intended to minimize chances of future disease outbreaks, as well as ascertain future produce-safety research, education and outreach needs,"​ said FDA. "The high degree of collaboration and cooperation in both the Leafy Greens and Tomato Safety Initiatives will play a significant role in allowing these initiatives to achieve their goals. The findings of the 2007 Leafy Greens Safety Initiative will be shared publicly upon completion of the effort, to allow state officials and members of the industry to maximize their food safety efforts." ​ In March this year, FDA issued an advisory to fresh-cut produce processors,​ in the wake of outbreaks of foodborne diseases from spinach and lettuce. This stated that they should immediately implement the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system throughout their supply chains. HACCP, which is already a requirement in the meat-processing sector, is an international food safety standard designed to prevent, eliminate, or reduce to acceptable levels the microbial, chemical, and physical hazards associated with food production.

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