Industry Responds to Latest FDA and CDC E. coli Outbreak Information
UNITED STATES - As trade industry advocates, we do our best to bring the most beneficial and relevant information to light, and challenging times like these provide tricky territory. Without a doubt, we send our hearts out to all those affected by the recent E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Salinas romaine lettuce that has occurred—this is a terrible tragedy indeed. And as a trade news organization, we know that the dialogue between the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and fresh produce industry suppliers is still an ongoing process and evolution.
At this time, it is essential that the public, restaurants, and retailers note that, according to the FDA, lettuce that was harvested outside of the Salinas region has not been implicated in this outbreak investigation. The FDA and CDC are advising consumers not to purchase or consume any romaine lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley area and, according to a PMA correspondence, this includes California's Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, and Santa Clara counties.
Here are some stats at a glance:
- Reported Cases: 40
- States: 16
- Hospitalizations: 28
- Deaths: 0
- Recall: Yes
For restaurants, retailers, and distributors, the FDA shared that it does not have enough traceback information to identify the specific source of the contamination that would allow the association to request a targeted recall from specific growers. The FDA adds that, “At this stage in the investigation, the most efficient way to ensure that contaminated romaine is off the market would be for the industry to voluntarily withdraw product grown in Salinas, and to withhold distribution of Salinas romaine for the remainder of the growing season in Salinas.”
Hydroponically- and greenhouse-grown romaine from any region does not appear to be related to the current outbreak.
A recall announced by the USDA on November 21, 2019, shared that Missa Bay, LLC had recalled approximately 75,233 pounds of salad products that contain meat or poultry because the lettuce ingredient may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced.
The products recalled have “Use By” dates ranging from October 29, 2019, to November 1, 2019, according to the FDA and CDC.
Dr. Trevor Suslow, Vice President, Produce Safety for the Produce Marketing Association shared that late into last Friday night, PMA, United Fresh, and other trade associations worked hard to get clarifications of the FDA and CDC notifications about the romaine outbreak and recall. The corrections to the CDC and FDA web posts helped immeasurably to reduce most of the confusion. However, despite this, Trevor adds that they are still hearing that this firm identification pre-printed identity or stick-on "PTI" label vs. "Grown In" labeling confusion is still causing rejections of product in the system that has been harvested outside the currently named counties, as well as Yuma-grown and harvested product which is entering the system, because the grower shipper has its business office address on a carton as Salinas, California.
“Early on, over this past weekend, it was relatively easy to find retail product on shelves with the consumer-facing stickers identifying 'Grown In' information which should have resulted in removal for sale,” Trevor shares. “An additional development has been the dialogue around the planned introduction of the Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of NY. The intent is to explicitly give FDA the authority to conduct environmental investigative sampling at any locations it deems necessary to pursue a source of contamination. The focus would include animal feeding operations, compost facilities, and other non-target and off-farm locations deemed relevant. FDA does not currently have full authority to conduct this type of sampling but in 2018 FDA investigators were eventually allowed access and did take limited samples at the CAFO operation in the Yuma region.”
As the industry responds to this most recent information, we share their words with you here…
Dr. Jennifer McEntire, Vice President of Food Safety & Technology, United Fresh Produce Association
“We have a major challenge as an industry to find ways to prevent outbreaks such as this. We’re pleased that the labeling by production region adopted after last year’s outbreak allowed FDA to limit its advisory to one region. Shippers and processors are still able to supply romaine from other regions and retailers can meet their customers’ needs. But, preventing outbreaks in the first place has to be our 100 percent focus. It’s imperative that we drive toward fast electronic traceability from the point of sale to shorten outbreaks if they occur.”
Chris Valadez, President, Grower Shipper Association (GSA)
“We said that many have worked hard to improve, and this is true—we have strengthened our food safety practices which are verified through mandatory government audits and new studies are now underway to advance new science and solutions at the Center for Produce Safety. This diligent work should not be diminished but we must do more and we must do it faster. To those who are suffering with this illness and their families and loved ones, we know our apologies aren't enough, as heartfelt as they are. GSA is committed to keeping you informed about how we advance continuous improvement in food safety for romaine products because that is truly what this is about: Making both the big and small changes throughout the supply chain, from farm to fork, each and every day. And, most importantly, keeping the health of consumers in our hearts and minds with every decision we make.”
Scott Horsfall, CEO, California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement
“We are very hopeful that what we learn from these recent outbreaks will help us to strengthen our food safety practices. Since the outbreak linked to romaine last Thanksgiving, the LGMA program in both California and Arizona have made several changes to the food safety practices required of farmers. The changes include updated protocols for irrigation and increased buffer zones between leafy greens farms and adjacent animal operations.”
As an industry, we can say that there have unquestionably been many advancements in food safety knowledge and practice, but from a consumer confidence standpoint, it is obviously concerning and disheartening to learn of these recurring outbreaks, Trevor adds.
“It is personal for me and my family—how does one make an informed decision when romaine lettuce and other leafy greens are part of our daily meal planning?” he says.
With greater transparency and access to relevant environmental sites—public and private—new molecular and genomic technologies open up vast possibilities to help limit contamination and make investigations, when it does occur, faster so the industry can get back to the source more quickly to surgically exclude a source and help determine what caused the contamination, Trevor reflects.
Keep checking back with AndNowUKnow as we bring you the latest information and voices from the industry as topics like this bring our members together.