Nine food safety and consumer groups — including Consumers Union, STOP Foodborne Illness and Center for Science in the Public Interest — have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use its power under the Food Safety Modernization Act to require stronger recordkeeping requirements for produce, including leafy greens. The groups sent a six-page letter dated May 24 to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb asking the agency to propose the new requirements within six months.
The groups said that better records would improve traceability so that E. coli outbreaks like the recent one linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona, area that caused 172 illnesses, 75 hospitalizations and one death could be more easily tracked and contaminated products more quickly recalled.
In light of the massive outbreak where no true source was pinpointed, the consumer groups wrote in their letter that these steps would make it so "consumers can have confidence that government and industry have the information they need to quickly and effectively respond and protect the public’s health."
The most recent outbreak linked to leafy greens is the second one in six months, and, according to The Packer, no specific source of contaminated lettuce has been found in either one. While FDA identified one Arizona farm as the source of some romaine lettuce that sickened eight people in Alaska, the agency doesn't know how or where in the supply chain the E. coli contamination occurred.
FDA and state officials blamed inconsistent records, problems with traceability labeling and incomplete shipping information for delaying the investigation — factors also mentioned in the groups' letter to Gottlieb asking that action be taken to solve these problems. The groups said although FSMA's Section 204 requires FDA to set up enhanced recordkeeping requirements for high-risk foods, the agency still hasn't done so seven years after the law was signed.
This week, a group of producers announced the formation of a Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force to help assess the situation and address problems. The Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements, the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers and others involved in the produce industry are taking part. They all have a lot to lose if they can't get a handle on the source of these outbreaks.
"Like many of you, we have questions about how romaine lettuce came to be the source of this recent outbreak. As families, farmers, and scientists who grow the food served at your tables and our own, we need to make sure that leafy greens are safe," they said in a release.
Despite the high-tech nature of some pathogen detection tools such as whole-genome sequencing, tracking down the source of pathogen contamination can be a time-consuming and difficult task. But if all these stakeholders band together and FDA requires better records, labeling and shipping information, it might make a difference in the next outbreak. Better cooperation and communication may also help consumers feel a little more comfortable about eating leafy greens — and not worry so much about contracting a foodborne illness.