In late 2019, the California and Arizona Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreements (LGMA) changed practices involving treatment of irrigation water in response to E. coli outbreaks involving romaine lettuce.
April Ward, marketing communications director for the LGMA, notes that the rules regarding agricultural water have been changed in the LGMA Food Safety Practices and are standard for 2020. “Growers are required to categorize their agricultural water as either Type A water—generally free of indicators of fecal contamination, as in deep wells and municipal sources—or Type B water—surface waters, or all other types of agricultural water,” she tells Food Quality & Safety. “Testing of all water sources is maintained but strengthened with more samples required and a new, stricter standard replacing previous standards that allowed some level of generic E. coli.”
Additionally, the use of untreated surface water for overhead irrigation during the 21 days prior to harvest has been banned. Specific corrective actions are prescribed should water not meet the mandated microbial standards. “These changes were adopted following investigations into two outbreaks tied to romaine lettuce in 2018,” Ward says. “In those investigations, the outbreak strains were found by the CDC in canal water in Arizona and an above-ground reservoir in California.”
To comply, members must use water that meets acceptance criteria for generic E.coli when that water will touch the edible portion of the crop within 21 days of harvest. California government auditors will perform audits of growers to assure this is being done. “The LGMA programs include a compliance element,” Ward says. “Handlers whose growers do not comply with the accepted food safety practices and who fail to conduct corrective actions, can be decertified. Decertification is a public action, and any action taken is made public.”