- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated its public warning about romaine lettuce on Monday to say that a voluntary industry labeling regime indicating origin and harvest date should help clarify whether the product is contaminated. The FDA found that romaine associated with the outbreak comes from areas of California that grow the lettuce over the summer, but the investigation is still ongoing.
- FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said after discussions with major producers and distributors, romaine entering the market will be labeled with a harvest location and date. "Romaine lettuce entering the market can also be labeled as being hydroponically or greenhouse grown. If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it," he added.
- Gottlieb also said romaine harvested outside California's Central Coast growing regions or grown hydroponically or in greenhouses doesn't appear to be related to the current E. coli outbreak. As of Nov. 26, he said, the outbreak has sickened 43 people in 12 states, which is 11 more people and one additional state since the latest update Nov. 20 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The leafy greens industry understandably wants to limit damage from the latest E. coli outbreak linked to its products — the third in the past year. Those sickened were infected with E. coli bacteria having the same DNA fingerprint as the strain isolated from those sickened in a 2017 outbreak linked to leafy greens in the U.S. and to romaine lettuce in Canada, the CDC said.
But the CDC also said this latest outbreak is not related to the recent multistate outbreak of E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce from Arizona. That outbreak — which the CDC said was believed to be over in late June — sickened 210 people from 36 states, hospitalized 96 and was associated with five deaths.
Whether the voluntary labeling scheme will have the intended outcome remains to be seen. According to The Wall Street Journal, Fresh Express, Taylor Farms and Dole Fresh Vegetables sent a letter to the FDA on Nov. 25 saying they would adopt labels showing where the romaine lettuce was grown and when it was harvested.
United Fresh, whose members represent the entire produce industry supply chain, said Monday the FDA and the CDC would be lifting their advisory warning consumers not to eat romaine lettuce based on this voluntary labeling agreement. The group said the deal was negotiated by "a number of romaine grower-shipper-processors" who agreed to take part.
"This will allow FDA to communicate to consumers that product coming back into the marketplace could not have been related to the outbreak earlier this fall," United Fresh said in a statement. The group also posted a Q&A about the new voluntary labeling scheme to provide guidance for its members.
The timing is crucial since the romaine lettuce harvest has moved from California's Central Coast to the state's Imperial Valley, the desert regions of Arizona — including Yuma, where the FDA believes the E. coli outbreak earlier this year originated — and Florida. Gottlieb also noted romaine grown in Mexico is exported to the U.S. during the winter months and smaller quantities come from other states.
The FDA's mention of greenhouses is good news for urban leafy greens growers, such as BrightFarms of New York City, which was subject to the same FDA warning as other romaine producers, processors and retailers. The company told Food Dive in an email that romaine lettuce grown indoors should be exempt from restrictions on produce grown in fields because it is likely not contaminated.
"In a controlled environment, produce can be grown without pesticides and with less risk of animals from nearby farms contaminating plants," BrightFarms said.
Moving forward, some problems linked to romaine lettuce remain. Although large commercial growers have agreed to label the product and work together to improve tracking it through the supply chain, consumers may not know what they're looking for or where the problematic lettuce came from. Also, some romaine is sold in bulk, so retailers will have to post the source and harvest date in an easily visible place.
This new labeling arrangement also begs the question of why the industry didn't do something similar after the other E. coli outbreaks. While adopting new labels and updating traceback systems are costly, it's far more damaging to risk recalls, illnesses and potential deaths. Though it's better late than never, consumers may have lingering doubts about the safety of leafy greens in general and romaine lettuce in particular.
Meanwhile, the FDA, CDC and state health officials continue to investigate this latest E. coli outbreak to figure out how the romaine was contaminated and what can be done to limit or stop the problem. The outbreak earlier this year likely came from E. coli-contaminated irrigation water. If this one is traced to the same source, it may be time to bite the bullet and mandate testing irrigation water for pathogens as Congress required under the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011 and the FDA delayed last year.