Food safety protocols with California greens- lessons learned

Field of baby greens at Faurot Ranch

You have to wonder what changes we are going to see in the meat inspection system in Canada following the debacle with XL Foods Inc.. Week after week, even months after the initial red flags were raised about E. coli contamination, various products and stores were added to the recall list, making it the largest meat recall ever in Canada. Consequently, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has taken a lot of heat.   And deservedly so.

Yet when it comes to another set of standards, the CFIA has their act together.

Salad greens from California, according to the CFIA, cannot be imported into Canada unless the vegetables have been harvested and transported according to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA).   The agreement, which  outlines protocols for safe handling of greens and salad mixes, came into being following the spinach recalls of 2006. Three people died as a result of tainted spinach and the industry was left in shambles. No one wanted to touch spinach let alone other greens from California.

As a result, farmers, handlers and the California government came together to form the LGMA and over time, they have come up strict protocols to ensure safe products.

Scott Horsfall, the Chief Executive Officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, points out that as nothing is foolproof when you’re dealing with agricultural products, the group has put into place procedures that  also allow for immediately tracing any possible contamination to the source in a very short time.

This traceability means that if a problem is identified, the LGMA can quickly find  out where the product came from, the potential source of contamination and where the product was being shipped to. This allows for a quick recall, if necessary.

Not exactly what Canadians saw with the beef recall.

But back to the major overhaul that resulted due to the LGMA.  In the past,  I have been known for my mistrust of  prewashed greens. I would tell people, wash the contents of the package even if the package was labelled “prewashed”.

Well, I got to eat my words when I witnessed firsthand  just how strict the safety procedures surrounding the harvesting and handling of prewashed salad greens really are.  I visited a number of farms – both small and large- in the Salinas Valley in Central California and was surprised at what is being done.

The protocols cover all kinds of potential sources of contamination. For example, before compost is used, it must be tested for microbial growth and then once it is deemed to be safe, its application is documented by the farmer as which fields and crops it has been used for.

Pre-harvest inspections looked for the smallest potential problem from bird droppings to animal tracks  in the area to be harvested.  If anything is seen, the area is cordoned off and not harvested.  Even the disinfection of the knives used by field workers is documented with the date and the ph or acidity of the solution being logged in the books.

It is very impressive indeed.

Following the harvest, the greens are put under strict temperature control, with  those labelled as pre-washed being triple-washed, then spun dry and packaged. While you may decide to wash your greens anyway, be aware that in some cases, consumers may contaminate their greens by washing them in their own kitchens.

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Do you wash pre-washed salad greens? Do you have a salad spinner?  Do you wash it with hot soapy water after every use? Please share your green routines in the comment section below.

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The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement paid for my trip to California. No other compensation was provided.

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Categories: Food Safety

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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