This story was authored by Kate Cimini and published by The Californian.
Monterey County growers face new water-testing regulations that hope to lessen risk of an E. coli outbreak like the one that hit the more-than-$600 million romaine lettuce industry last year.
The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) Board of Directors voted Friday to strengthen testing requirements on both surface water and groundwater to prevent another E. coli outbreak. Last year's outbreak sickened dozens and sideswiped the industry in 2018.
While LGMA already incorporated water testing, these new regulations have significantly lowered the rate of bacteria available in water, said CEO Scott Horsfall.
"We always had water testing, but it was a one-size-fits all," Horsfall said.
These more stringent standards came in direct response to outbreaks of the past year in both California and in Yuma, Ariz, where federal testing found the deadly bacteria in a canal in Yuma and a reservoir in California.
"The reason we're making these changes is to protect public health," said Horsfall in an LGMA video released after the vote Friday. "So we're doing everything that we can to raise the bar for food safety to make leafy greens safer."
California and Arizona are the top producers of leafy greens in the United States.
California alone produced about $1.8 billion in leafy greens in 2018 according to the 2018 State Agriculture Review; that was down from about $2.41 billion in 2017, likely due to the spring and fall 2018 E.coli outbreaks.
Monterey County growers declined to say how much revenue they lost at the time of the fall outbreak, but the county is the main suppliers of leaf lettuce, producing 56% of head lettuce grown in the U.S. annually. That translated to about $829.7 million in business for Monterey County leaf lettuce growers in 2017.
While growers were previously satisfied with a sample rate that included less than 126 parts per million of E .coli, under the new standards they are now required to test three times a month. If growers find one in five samples shows more than ten parts per million of E. coli, they are required to treat their water.
Furthermore, growers can no longer use untreated surface water for overhead irrigation of leafy greens within the 21 days prior to harvest. That includes groundwater that was pumped to the surface to sit in a canal or tank before it was used, Horsfall said, as bacteria can survive the 21 days on the surface of romaine or other leafy greens.
Asked if these new standards were necessary to regain customer trust, D'Arrigo Brothers owner and LGMA board member John D'Arrigo said, "It's absolutely necessary."
"Every grower I know is excited about this," D'Arrigo said, speaking on the new layer of protection. He compared food safety to auto safety, adding, "Once you find out airbags are necessary, you're going to put them in your car.
"Sure, it's going to cost more. It's time, it's labor, it's testing, it's laboratories," said D'Arrigo. "...It's going to affect the bottom line. This is the cost of doing business. This is the cost of safety."
In 2007, following a outbreak of e. coli that sickened more than 200 people, the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement was created to assure safe leafy greens and confidence in food safety programs.
Although LGMA is a membership-based organization, all major growers in Monterey County belong to the organization. Penalties will be assessed if member growers do not follow the new standards.
The LGMA will soon begin outreach to leafy greens growers to ensure understanding and compliance with the new standards.