It is great to see at least someone in the industry funding the research necessary to prevent the 22nd E. coli outbreak tied to lettuce or spinach.
One of the nation’s biggest processors of bagged lettuce said Wednesday it would give up to $2 million to pay for scientific research that would improve produce safety and prevent future E. coli outbreaks. Fresh Express said the pledged money would allow food safety experts who have been meeting as volunteers since May to pay for specific research projects through a competitive grant process. The group is chaired by Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. The panel had identified five areas worthy of more research, including from how E. coli is absorbed by leafy greens and whether it survives in harvested fields, Osterholm said in a statement released by the company. Fresh Express said the group, which includes experts from academia and government, would make the research grants independently and without restrictions from the company.
In October, Julie Schmit of USA Today wrote a glowing piece on Fresh Express and what it does to help prevent poisoning its customers.
Fresh Express leads the pack’ in produce safety
A few key points that Fresh Express does:
- Fresh Express requires that spinach or lettuce fields be several hundred feet from pastures — often more — to lessen the chance that E. coli in manure could spread to fields by cattle, wildlife or water.
- Before Fresh Express contracts to buy crops from growers, growers must complete a five-page questionnaire that details everything from the water used to irrigate crops to how growers keep birds off fields to whether worker toilets are cleaned by growers or service companies.
- Two years ago, Fresh Express started requiring companies that harvest the crops to swab equipment after it was hosed down and disinfected to make sure it was clean.
- Over the years, Fresh Express has refused produce from parts of fields because wild pigs had stomped through them and because nearby brush may have attracted wildlife.
Keep reading a listing of what Fresh Express does to combat E. coli and other pathogens:
SEED TO SUPERMARKET
Fresh Express, the No. 1 maker of packaged salads, is considered an industry leader in food safety. Fresh Express processes 1.2 billion pounds of raw lettuce and spinach a year. It buys lettuce and spinach from growers, who must meet certain standards.
Fresh Express gets most of its product from California’s Salinas Valley. Fields and operations are inspected three times each crop cycle.
Fresh Express won’t accept produce from fields if:
* They’re within one mile of a cattle feed lot or dairy operation. Cattle operations may cause E. coli to get into runoff water and onto a field, especially during floods.
* They’ve been flooded within five years.
* They’re within several hundred feet of a cattle pasture.
* They’re within 150 yards of rivers, or habitat that attracts wildlife that may spread contaminants.
* They catch water runoff from cattle pastures.
In Salinas, Calif., well water irrigates fields and is drawn from aquifers 800 to 1,000 feet below ground.
* Water is tested monthly for pathogens during the growing and harvesting season. Before the recent E. coli outbreak, water was tested at least three times a year.
Because animals can spread E. coli, tracks in a field make that part of the field unfit for harvest. Often, 30% to 40% is affected. Two years ago, Fresh Express stopped buying lettuce from Florida because growers couldn’t keep frogs out of the crop, which then had to be destroyed. To protect fields:
* Rodent traps, checked daily, are set about 50 feet apart along the field’s edge. Carbide cannons, which sound like shotguns, are set off by timers to scare off birds.
* Fences may be required to keep out deer, wild pigs, cattle and other animals. Evidence of wild pigs makes land unharvestable for two years.
* Workers’ dogs are not allowed in fields or in trucks.
Fresh Express prefers growers use cover crops to add organic matter. Crops such as wheat and barley are planted but plowed under before harvest.
* Raw animal manure is banned because it may contain E. coli.
* Composted animal manure is being phased out because of fear that bacteria may survive fermentation and heating.
Spinach is typically harvested between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., when cooler temperatures help keep product fresh. Lettuce, which is hardier and is a bigger crop, is typically harvested in the morning and afternoon.
* Worker cuts lettuce from root.
* Outer leaves taken off.
* Core cut out.
* Each head is placed onto tray and a water jet sprays the cut area, where bacteria can cling.
* Lettuce goes up a conveyor belt, is sprayed with chlorine-based solution for cleansing and goes into plastic-lined bins on truck. Plastic liners are used only once.
* Workers must wear gloves, hairnets, aprons, long sleeves so that no skin touches produce.
* Portable latrines with water for hand-washing must be within a 5-minute walk, or 1/4 mile, from workers. One latrine is needed for every 20 employees of each gender.
* Produce is trucked from the field to a cooling station.
* Cooled to 34-38 degrees within four hours of being cut.
4. Shipping to process
Produce is trucked from cooling stations to Fresh Express processing plants in Salinas, near Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Carrollton, Ga.
* Trucks are cooled to 36 degrees and are swept and hosed down before loading.
* Temperatures inside the trailer are monitored. If temperatures aren’t kept above 32 degrees and below 40 degrees, produce is discarded. Salinas Valley to Atlanta is the longest drive, about 66 hours.
Iceberg lettuce is the largest-volume product. No hand, even gloved, touches the lettuce.
* Workers wear gloves, gowns, hairnets and hard hats.
* Gloved hands go through a hand-sanitizer rinse.
* Trays filled with ammonia-based solutions are spaced throughout the plant so workers disinfect soles of shoes.
* Packaged produce is washed and rinsed several times with chlorinated water, which the industry says removes 90% to 99% of microbes, including bacteria.
How iceberg lettuce is processed
* Cut automatically.
* Drops into agitating chute with chlorinated wash water.
* Goes up conveyor belt where water drains off.
* Drops into another agitating chute with chlorinated water. Sprayed with water from above.
* Moves to another conveyor belt where produce is sprayed from above and water drains off.
* Dried and bagged.
6. Shipping to customers
Produce is on supermarket shelves within 24 to 72 hours of harvest.
* Bagged salads, packed in boxes, go into trucks that have been swept and cooled to 36 degrees.
* Trailer temperature is monitored throughout the drive. If temperatures aren’t kept above 32 degrees and below 40 degrees, produce is discarded.
* Trucks are locked until unloaded at a customer’s distribution center.
Source: Fresh Express