- The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report that urged more companies and government agencies to make root cause analysis a priority to help stop future foodborne illnesses outbreaks. The report — called A Guide for Conducting a Food Safety Root Cause Analysis — was published Tuesday.
- Root cause analysis is a method of problem solving used to find the underlying reasons for how and why an event, like a foodborne illness outbreak, occurred. It is commonly used to investigate air traffic accidents and patient safety issues, according to Pew.
- The report looked at how root cause analysis has helped other industries, how to prepare a team to conduct them, and how to effectively communicate the findings of an analysis to relevant stakeholders and make sure changes get made.
After several high-profile and widespread E. coli contamination incidents involving romaine lettuce and other leafy greens in recent years, foodborne illness outbreak prevention is a top-of-mind issue for regulators, companies, industry trade groups and even consumers. If shifting priorities to focus more on root cause analysis can help stop outbreaks from happening, then that could be a goal for businesses and public health agencies in the future.
Learning from food contamination outbreaks helps to uncover weaknesses in food safety systems, Pew said. The group noted that foodborne illness investigation methods continue to evolve but that identifying the root cause of food contamination has not yet been synchronized across food industries, regulatory agencies, academic institutions and other key stakeholder groups. Foodborne illnesses in the U.S. have been rising, so focusing more on finding out why could help change that.
When outbreaks occur, the food industry’s current standard is to identify the product and recall it so more consumers don’t get contaminated. But for many, that isn't enough. Even though analyses can leave questions unresolved, Pew said the findings from root cause analysis are "critically important" for understanding what went wrong in a food safety operation so that corrective actions can be put in place.
The food industry has an incentive to focus more on root causes since past outbreaks have resulted in financial losses from sales declines and wasted crops. It also has prompted concerns from consumers that can make them hesitant buyers once the outbreak has passed. This guide will likely be viewed as reliable because Pew complied it based on research in other industries as well as through discussions with leaders in food safety, including manufacturers and regulators.
The FDA is already ramping up its prevention efforts, especially for products such as romaine lettuce. This month, the agency released an action plan for leafy greens to help prevent and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks with a variety of efforts including increasing water safety rules, education and purification methods; prioritizing inspections; strengthening food safety specifications for buyers; and creating a voluntary data trust to assist with analytical research to help with prevention.
Despite efforts over the years, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 40 foodborne outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections in the U.S. between 2009 and 2018 with a confirmed or suspected link to leafy greens. Since leafy greens have continued to be an issue despite prevention efforts, FDA is looking to work more on root cause analysis in the future.
The agency announced in January that the latest romaine outbreak appeared to be over, but no source of contamination or root cause was identified. However, the FDA said it will continue to investigate the underlying root causes during this year’s growing season.
The purpose of the Pew guide is not only to improve food safety through root cause analysis, but also to encourage the sharing of information and lessons learned from the investigations. Last year, the FDA was criticized for waiting six weeks to announce a romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak.
Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at FDA, told Pew in a Q&A released alongside the report that due to the long time it takes until illnesses are detected, reported and traced to a source, investigations following the romaine outbreaks have been "challenging." He said the agency plans to work with federal and state partners to accelerate foodborne illness reporting and tracing of contaminated produce back to its source, which will lead to more meaningful root cause analysis.
"The time has come for the field of food safety to further advance this approach," he said.