(Dec. 14) SALINAS, Calif. — Leaders from produce trade associations, regulatory agencies, government interests and scientific communities have formed a coalition to collectively address food safety issues in lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley.

The group gathered Dec. 13 at the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California to discuss how to reduce food-borne illnesses stemming from lettuce, how to merge resources to investigate outbreaks and ways to improve overall food safety.

“This is an unprecedented gathering,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. “We have the representation of 95% of the Salinas lettuce community. We take this seriously.”

In addition to PMA, the group included representatives from Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.; United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington D.C.; International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va.; Alliance for Food and Farming, Watsonville; the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, College Park, Md.; and the California Department of Health Services, Sacramento.

Initiated by Western Growers, the group met with members of the lettuce industry. Fifty to 60 people attended the morning’s meeting, said Jim Bogart, president of GSA.

Robert Brackett, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition — and whose signature appeared on the letter from the FDA sent to lettuce growers Nov 4. — also joined in.

“Food safety is not a competitive issue,” Brackett said. “It has become an issue of protecting the public health. We are behind the industry in helping to solve the problem.”

What was once viewed as a Salinas problem is a national problem, Brackett added.

The group will focus on four categories of a produce safety action plan: communication, outreach, guidance and research, said Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology for Western Growers.

“We’re now focused on trying to deliver specific guidance and on a comprehensive research agenda and how to fund it,” Giclas said.

In the short-term, the group plans to jump start its commodity-specific guidance document for lettuce, which should be released in draft form for public comment by the beginning of January, said Jim Gorny, vice president of quality assurance and technology for United.

The document will outline a safety plan for lettuce from field to fork, Gorny said.

Commodity-specific documents focus on four categories: lettuce, tomatoes, melons and green onions/herbs. The melon guidance document was released Nov. 28.

In the long-term, the coalition is summoning support from technical resources and industry members, Gorny added.

Giclas said this effort is not a culmination but a beginning.

“We’re at the jumping off point and not the end point,” he said. “Guidance is a short-term deliverable.”

A long-term deliverable goal will be an assessment of epidemiological data, he added.

Individual groups have studied the traceability of foodborne illnesses. About 2% trace back to the farm, said Teresa Thorne, spokeswoman for Alliance for Food and Farming.

“This group is saying that 2% needs to go down even lower,” Thorne said. “We’re getting the cooperation we need for a more systematic approach.”

One objective of the group is to not allow lettuce to become the source of a public scare, such as famous cases involving Tylenol or Jack in the Box, he said.

Though the group has no plans to hold all-inclusive meetings, smaller work groups are in development.

“Some leaders have been assigned to the guidance group like United and PMA,” Giclas said.

Industry leaders will make up technical sub-groups, he added.

Jerry Welcome, president of IFPA, said the group has some educating to do to consumers through mass media.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Welcome said. “It behooves us to have the right information out there. We need them to understand.”