The long-term damage to the western leafy greens industry from E. coli 0157:H7 contamination of California-grown romaine lettuce four years ago simulates the impact heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali left on his opponents: black eyes and lingering scars.

Three food safety experts revisited the September 2006 E. coli-spinach foodborne illness outbreak during a food safety seminar at World Ag Expo and talked about how the leafy greens industry from farm-to-fork continues to rebuild.

The E. coli outbreak brought the leafy greens industry to its knees, sank consumer confidence in their food supply to Titanic depths, and still today has a target drawn squarely on its back with federal bureaucrats poised to impose even stricter federal regulations on the industry.

“Any time there is a food safety incident it really is a black eye on the industry,” Scott Hood told the crowd. Hood is the senior manager for microbiology and thermal processing for General Mills.

California leafy greens executive Scott Horsfall added, “The biggest change in our industry over the last four years is that culture has changed significantly to where food safety is really job one on the farm.”

Hood, Horsfall, and Barry Eisenberg of the United Fresh Produce Association discussed food safety problems and solutions during the seminar held in Tulare, Calif. in February.

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports one in six Americans get a foodborne illness each year; most are minor cases. The foodborne illness-spinach outbreak four years ago sickened 205 people nationwide. Four people died.

Horsfall, chief executive officer with the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, LGMA for short, showed a PowerPoint photo of two-year-old Kyle Algood of Idaho who died from consuming tainted spinach. Horsfall has been instrumental in rebuilding food safety and consumer confidence in leafy greens.

“As an industry it’s important to remember why we’re so committed to food safety,” Horsfall said. “We’re not doing it because the industry lost $100 million (in reduced leafy green sales after the E. coli event). We’re doing this because it has very real repercussions when the products we produce and sell have these consequences.”

The leafy greens industry has worked feverishly for decades to provide nutritious and safe vegetables for consumers. The 2006 food safety breach shoved the Western leafy greens industry toward enhanced leafy green production and handling standards through the development of the California LGMA program to improve food safety practices during planting, cultivating, harvesting, and packing.