The food science deficit — romaine lettuce is just the tip of the iceberg

The Caesar salad has its roots in the Prohibition of the 1920s. Restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who emigrated to the U.S. from Italy, opened an eatery in Tijuana to cater to Hollywood stars and moguls at the time seeking an escape from the restrictions on alcohol. A spontaneous, late-night creation — according to legend — the salad soon crossed the border and became a staple of steakhouses and posh restaurants in Los Angeles and New York City.

Ever since then, the romaine variety has had a special place in the hierarchy of lettuce. But now, after a blanket recall days before Thanksgiving, the nation's most food-oriented holiday, it's probably the most notorious.

Today, farmers have figured out where to grow most varieties of lettuce at any time of the year. So when romaine was fingered as the source of an E. coli outbreak that sickened 43 people in 12 states, the federal government was able to roll back this blanket prohibition and limit the recall to produce from central California farms, where most of the romaine is grown at this time of year. But limitations in science prevent any further specificity.

Earlier this year, the government used deductive reasoning to squelch a larger E. coli outbreak that killed five people and sickened hundreds in 36 states; after using the genetic fingerprint of the bacteria to trace it to romaine lettuce, they realized that the primary region supplying the country with romaine at the time the outbreak started — southern Arizona — was the probable source.

The reason why the lettuce carried the pathogens in the first place was never confirmed. Contaminated irrigation water was the probable suspect, but without confirmation, there were no concrete lessons learned. It’s not surprising that a separate batch of romaine also became contaminated less than a year later.

We can’t even keep the turkey at Thanksgiving safe. Just about every November, there is a recall of turkey or turkey products because of a food poisoning outbreak. This year, it was ground turkey that infected 164 people in 35 states.

It’s time to inoculate our dinners against food poisoning. And scientists are trying.

Researchers at Tuskegee University — cobbling together a variety of grants whose sources include one of the federal government’s flagship research programs, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) — developed hand-held tools that can detect more than a dozen varieties of Salmonella in under 10 minutes. Current food screening techniques last up to two days or more.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis — again tapping a variety of public and private sources — developed a databank with the digital genetic signatures from tens of thousands of salmonella strains. This repository can be used in conjunction with the handheld tools to prevent contaminated food from entering supply chains and also to pinpoint sources of multi-state outbreaks.

These developments took place several years ago but have not yet been implemented on a broad enough scale to prevent or even significantly limit both romaine contaminations this year.

Much has been made of the climate change impacts on agriculture, both domestically and overseas, and how more science is needed to help farmers as they keep feeding the world. Our food also needs to remain safe, and you could easily point to a dearth of science in food safety as our food supply chains grow ever more complex.

In fact, agricultural research in all sectors has been woefully neglected. Too many innovations and breakthroughs have yet to be implemented, and even more are left inadequately explored as scientists have to spend more time trying to keep their labs funded than conducting actual research. 

One look at the budget of AFRI, the flagship competitive grants program of the U.S.  Department of Agriculture (USDA), reveals how funding for the farm and food sciences has stagnated. Congress established AFRI in the 2008 farm bill and set the program’s maximum budget at $700 million. In 10 years, the ambition for this program has not changed — the new farm bill currently being negotiated is not expected to raise this ceiling despite an ever-escalating list of problems that need to be solved. 

Even more to the point, the annual budgets allocated to fund AFRI have fallen far short of the ceiling, only barely creeping past the halfway mark in the last few years.

Without a vast infusion of innovation, the size and safety of our food supply will gradually begin to shrink. It might start with “glamor dishes” like the Caesar salad, but romaine is only the tip of the iceberg. Next year at this time, we will doubtlessly see another food safety scare around turkeys — and an unpredictable yet growing number of other outbreaks in between.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die — every year. The only way to lower these numbers is to put science back on the menu, preferably seated at the head of the table.

Thomas Grumbly serves as president of Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation. He has held senior policy roles in the Office of Management and Budget, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.