- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Oct. 31 an E. coli outbreak associated with romaine lettuce sickened 23 people in 12 states between July 12 and Sept. 8. While 11 people were hospitalized, the agency said no deaths were reported, the active investigation has wrapped up and the outbreak appears to be over.
- Romaine lettuce was identified as the likely source, but available data indicated the product eaten by sick people was past its shelf life and no longer available for sale, the FDA said. "We do not believe there is a current or ongoing risk to the public and we are not recommending the public avoid consuming romaine lettuce," Frank Yiannas, FDA's deputy commissioner for Food Policy and Response, said in the release.
- Both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established romaine as the probable cause on Oct. 2, Brian Katzowitz, a CDC health communication specialist, told The Washington Post. He said the delay in sharing the news was due to a few variables and the CDC "generally posts outbreak warnings when there is something actionable for consumers to do."
It's not uncommon for food safety regulators to wait until more details are known about an outbreak before informing the public, but for six weeks to go by before saying anything about an E. coli outbreak can raise questions and cause consumer concern. The delay is even more puzzling since this outbreak was linked to romaine lettuce, which has been involved in three other major outbreaks during the past two years.
The FDA and the CDC may believe consumers couldn't realistically do anything to protect themselves six weeks out, but telling people about the outbreak earlier may have helped them avoid contaminated romaine lettuce. The FDA's assertion that any contaminated romaine lettuce would be past its shelf life and no longer available for sale may be true, but it's not clear how the agency could know that for a fact.
Food safety activists have criticized the delay. Food safety lawyer Bill Marler wrote on his blog that he was disgusted that the government kept this outbreak "hidden from public view."
"Although the consuming public was kept in the dark, it is without question that government, industry and academia knew that the outbreak happened, but they all chose to hide it until late this evening – so much for 'transparency' and so much for 'food safety culture,' " he wrote. "We will not have a safe food supply when facts are hidden from consumers."
Consumer Reports was also critical of the delay, writing in a post that while not all foodborne illness outbreaks are publicly announced, previous lettuce-related outbreaks were severe enough to warrant quicker action. The nonprofit also noted E. coli O157:H7 — the strain of the pathogen involved — produces a toxin that can lead to serious illness, kidney failure and death.
The leafy greens industry is well aware of pathogen problems and has recently taken steps to improve production processes. The industry has tightened up grower requirements and recently embarked on a multi-year food safety initiative involving government, academia and industry to better understand the impact of pathogens on leafy greens in areas including Yuma County, Arizona and the Imperial Valley in California.
In a statement, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement trade group said it will use information from this latest outbreak investigation to enhance mandatory food safety practices. LGMA Chairman Dan Sutton said while FDA's farm tests were negative for traces of E. coli, leafy greens growers will continue to work with public health agencies to improve their food safety practices.
According to a 2017 report from the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration, 51% of E. coli cases were linked to produce in 2013, along with 59% of listeria cases, 46% of salmonella ones and 33% of cambylobacter cases. Most E. coli outbreaks were linked to leafy greens and other vegetables — more than any other food category.
Waiting six weeks to reveal the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce could have been an effort to reduce panic, but that decision could lead to more consumers losing trust in the industry. Transparency is critical to bolstering consumer confidence in the food supply — particularly items that have already had contamination problems.
In addition, any delay telling the public about an outbreak will likely increase suspicion that food safety agencies are not looking out for the public welfare, and that sentiment could lead to less romaine lettuce being consumed. The romaine industry, which was hit by decreased sales following the previous outbreaks, likely won't welcome that outcome.
President Trump has nominated radiation oncologist Stephen Hahn as the next FDA commissioner. If Hahn is confirmed, he may want to sit down with Yiannas and other agency leaders to figure out a more consistent public policy response to foodborne illness outbreaks.