Rainfall, use of contaminated water for irrigation or contaminated equipment are among the factors that cause contamination of leafy greens with Salmonella and Norovirus. These are some of the findings of EFSA’s latest opinion on risk factors that contribute to the contamination of leafy greens at different stages of the food chain. The BIOHAZ Panel has recommended that producers use good agricultural, hygiene and manufacturing practices to reduce contamination. The Panel has also proposed specific microbiological criteria at primary production.
Leafy greens eaten raw as salads are minimally processed and widely consumed foods. Risk factors for leafy greens contamination by Salmonella spp. and Norovirus were considered in the context of the whole food chain including agricultural production and processing. Available estimates of the prevalence of these pathogens (together with the use of Escherichia coli as an indicator organism) in leafy greens were evaluated. Specific mitigation options relating to contamination of leafy greens were considered and qualitatively assessed. It was concluded that each farm environment represents a unique combination of numerous characteristics that can influence occurrence and persistence of pathogens in leafy greens production. Appropriate implementation of food safety management systems, including Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Good Hygiene Practices (GHP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), should be primary objectives of leafy green producers. The relevance of microbiological criteria applicable to production, processing and at retail/catering were considered. The current legal framework does not include microbiological criteria applicable at primary production which will validate and verify GAP and GHP. It is proposed to define a criterion at primary production of leafy greens which is designated as Hygiene Criterion, and E. coli was identified as suitable for this purpose.
A Process Hygiene Criterion for E. coli in leafy green packaging plants or fresh cutting plants was considered and will also give an indication of the degree to which GAP, GHP, GMP or HACCP programs have been implemented. A Food Safety Criterion for Salmonella in leafy greens could be used as a tool to communicate to producers and processors that Salmonella should not be present in the product. Studies on the prevalence and infectivity of Norovirus are limited, and quantitative data on viral load are scarce making establishment of microbiological criteria for Norovirus on leafy greens difficult.