Preventing the next romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak

After warning consumers to avoid eating romaine lettuce in late November, the FDA has sounded the all clear: As long as romaine doesn’t come from the summer growing regions in central or northern California, you can go back to eating it.

Producers have voluntarily agreed to label bagged romaine now being harvested in winter growing regions — Arizona, southern California, Florida, and Mexico — to let you know where it is coming from. If the label says it was grown in one of these regions, you are not likely to encounter the virulent strain of E. coli that sickened 87 people across the United States and CanadaAnd if any of them are contaminated with anything else, it will be easier to track and avoid.

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But the new labels do not solve the bigger problems. The recent outbreak was traced to fields in central and northern California and is a genetic match to an unsolved outbreak in the fall of 2017. Even though we know where that came from, we don’t know what caused it. There was an even bigger outbreak of a different strain of dangerous E. coli last spring, linked to lettuce grown in the Yuma, Ariz. region.

Can we be sure romaine will be safe for the rest of the year? Unfortunately, FDA and the industry are not doing all they can to prevent lettuce from being contaminated, and fundamental questions about last spring’s Arizona outbreak remain unanswered.

Seven years after Congress passed the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the FDA still hasn’t implemented a number of key reforms required by that law. Among other things, the law required the FDA to issue new industry record-keeping rules that mandate traceability, so the agency can quickly trace the source of food-borne illness outbreaks and strong standards to ensure that the water used to irrigate crops is safe and sanitary.

Current federal rules require only “one step forward and one step back” record-keeping by businesses involved in leafy greens, rather than a continuous record that tracks a product from the beginning to the end of the supply chain. That’s made finding the source of a food-borne illness outbreak arduous and time consuming. When an outbreak occurs, FDA investigators must work through a tangled web of inconsistent and inadequate industry records, sometimes handwritten, hampering the agency’s ability to figure out how a dangerous bug got in the food, and eliminate the problem.

FSMA required the FDA to create enhanced record-keeping requirements for high-risk foods. Yet, the FDA has failed to carry out Congress’ mandate. After three major E. coli outbreaks involving romaine lettuce in less than a year, it’s clear that leafy greens should be classified as “high risk.”.

Recognizing that irrigation water can be a source of contamination for produce, Congress also required the FDA to implement new water quality and testing requirements. The FDA proposed new agricultural water rules in 2013, but announced last September that it was delaying their implementation until 2022 at the earliest.

Underlining the need for these rules, the dangerous strain of E coli that caused last spring’s E. coli outbreak in Arizona romaine was found in an irrigation canal that flowed by a cattle feedlot. The FDA maintains that E. coli found in the canal is just one clue it has uncovered in its investigation and that it still doesn’t know how the E. coli got into the water or how that water got into the fields. Is the outbreak strain still present in the irrigation water or has it been eliminated? We don’t know.

New origin labeling on romaine lettuce by the industry is helpful, but it should be mandatory not voluntary and required for all leafy greens, the source of most food-borne illness in the U.S. We need the FDA to be more proactive. At a minimum it’s time for FDA to implement the water quality standards it put on hold a year ago to help prevent future contamination and mandate strong industry record-keeping so it can quickly trace what’s making people sick the next time an outbreak occurs.

Jean Halloran is the director of food policy initiatives for Consumer Reports.