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What's Behind the Lettuce Outbreaks?
Let’s take a deeper dive to find out what’s behind the lettuce outbreak as we just experienced another recall. Although, it has been two years since THE FIRST round of Romain lettuce outbreaks it would appear that little is being done to solve this continual problem. However, it’s important to understand the gravity of the situation. No one, including the grower, the supplier, or the retailer, wants to see any additional outbreaks and are doing everything they can to help keep our food supply safe. In addition, when an outbreak occurs, they all lose money, credibility, loyalty, and faith. So what’s behind the lettuce outbreaks?
Are Lettuce Handlers Getting a Bad (w)rap on Recalls?
The growers have an arduous task of keeping food safe for us to consume. The task of feeding a growing population is no small undertaking and piling on the added burden of attacking ever-changing food borne pathogens forces regular farmers to become food scientists.
Let’s take a look at just a small subset of many factors that are in play to help gain a better understanding of what can/cannot be done:
1. Proximity to Livestock
Over time farmers have learned the hard way about best practices when it comes to growing produce. You see, they have to make sure all areas designated to grow food need to be uphill, upstream and even upwind from areas where livestock are present (cattle manure is often associated with E.coli). Therefore, with this best practice being implemented, farmers have some control over their crops and will not allow the rains to carry food borne pathogens onto their fields. But let’s now consider another animal the grower doesn’t have control over.
It has become well known that certain species can contaminate agricultural growing fields through the parasites and fungi found in their droppings. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control, bird droppings have been associated with more than 60 human diseases, including Salmonellosis, Histoplasmosis, Encephalitis and Cryptococcosis.
3. Ever-Mutating Pathogens
A lot of the food borne pathogens causing us harm are constantly mutating. As soon as we find a solution to one strain, another one mutates and becomes non-responsive to the last solution.
4. Increasing Costs
The more checks and balances thrown on the growers, the greater the cost to the consumer. The regulations coming from the FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) are necessary and essential. However, the reality is that these regulations require significant changes in the way producers grow, harvest, pack, store and transport product. All of these changes require new everything such as; protocols, resources, procedures, science, QA/QC, added frequency, etc. While all of this is very necessary and good, all of this is not free and costs a tremendous amount of money. Furthermore, the growers are asked to do all of this without raising their prices. This has put many growers out of business because they can no longer afford to take on all of these extra measures and still make a living
Solving The Problem
So, what do we do? We can address the Livestock problem as mentioned above by separating livestock from growing fields. Regarding the issue of bird droppings, the only solution is to grow everything in a greenhouse.
Although that might sound attractive, it is neither scalable nor sustainable. It cannot generate the amount of product we need to feed our growing population. In addition, let’s not forget the enormous infrastructure cost to convert fields to greenhouses.
Regarding the “ever-mutating pathogens”, food scientists are laboring intensely to fight this uphill battle. We are finding solutions to identify affected product but finding little sustainable solutions to eliminate the pathogens. Regarding “increasing costs”, we shouldn’t be surprised if the costs begin to rise. Let’s also support our food scientists in the work they are doing to find solutions to eliminate food-borne pathogens.
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