- The FDA will start sampling romaine lettuce for E. coli and salmonella bacteria this month. The agency plans to collect 270 raw post-harvest samples in the California and Arizona growing regions during the next year. They will be collected with more frequency during production transition periods in March, April, October and November. The samples will be taken from wholesalers, food service distribution centers and commercial facilities, the FDA said.
- The sampling and testing project follows several recent outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to romaine lettuce consumption. There have been three major outbreaks in the past two years, and the most recent E. coli outbreak was revealed just last month.
- The effort is meant to help FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health agencies find contamination sources and develop target investigations into foodborne illness outbreaks, the agency wrote. If E. coli or salmonella bacteria are found in a sample, the FDA said it will inform the company involved as soon as possible. The agency will also perform whole genome sequencing on any pathogens detected.
With this latest sampling project, the FDA is responding to recent illness outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce — and perhaps the widespread criticism from not informing the public for six weeks about the most recent one, which sickened 23 people in 12 states between July 12 and Sept. 8.
Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said in a statement after the latest outbreak the FDA did not believe it posed a current or ongoing risk to the public. The FDA also said available data indicated the product eaten by sick people was past its shelf life and no longer available for sale.
Regardless, these continued outbreaks have caused consumer concern and mistrust in the lettuce industry. The agency noted there have been five suspected or confirmed multistate outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to produce harvested in the Yuma, Arizona, growing region since 2012. This latest effort might help allay consumer fears about eating lettuce once this additional testing is completed and the results are publicly shared.
This is not the first project the agency has done on lettuce. In August, FDA released results from romaine lettuce samples collected starting last December in the Yuma area and tested for E. coli and salmonella. Of 118 samples taken from commercial coolers and cold storage facilities, a non-pathogenic type of E. coli was detected in one, but no salmonella was found, the agency reported.
That previous sampling and testing project followed an E. coli outbreak in the spring of 2018 that sickened 210 people in 36 states, killed five, hospitalized 96 and caused 27 cases of kidney failure. The outbreak was linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region, the FDA said.
The industry has also tightened grower requirements, and it 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 Arizona and California.
It's possible the agency will learn more about how romaine lettuce becomes contaminated from the upcoming sampling and testing. However, the samples will not be collected directly from the field but after harvest and prior to processing. The FDA said this approach permits analysis before the fresh-cut product is mixed with other produce so it can "quickly trace the lettuce to its point of origin when samples test positive for the presence of a human pathogen."
Once testing results are known — probably in 2021 — the agency, its partners and the leafy greens industry may be able to work out some way to stop outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce before they start. So far, that hasn't happened, and unless the situation improves pretty soon, produce industry profits and consumer confidence in the food safety system may continue to suffer.