FDA proposes new labels designating which romaine lettuce is safe

Romaine Lettuce
Photograph: Shutterstock

Federal authorities are working with growers and distributors of romaine lettuce to narrow a blanket warning given last week that the green should be dropped from menus because of possible E. coli contamination.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is developing a new packaging label to designate what romaine lettuce is safe to serve based on where it was grown, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a medical doctor, tweeted over Thanksgiving. He noted that cultivation and distribution cycles indicate the lettuce responsible for sickening 32 people in the United States and another 18 in Canada likely came from California, a major production area. 

The FDA advised foodservice operators and retailers last Tuesday to immediately stop selling romaine lettuce, regardless of its origin or preparation, and to throw away any supplies in storage.  Most of that produce likely came from California, Gottlieb revealed in a flurry of tweets. “The goal now is to withdraw the product that’s at risk of being contaminated from the market, and then restock the market,” he wrote. 

Harvesting of the popular salad base is about to begin in two other major cultivation areas, Florida and Arizona. The objective is to develop a label designating lettuce picked from those areas “post-purge,” the commissioner tweeted.

A label revealing where the lettuce was grown would be developed immediately, Gottlieb indicated, but “[what] we’re seeking is to make this type of labeling the new standard rather than a short-term fix; as a way to improve identification and traceability in the system.”

Lettuce producers have urged the government to take a more surgical approach in warning restaurants, retailers and consumers about the potential contamination of romaine. “It is important to acknowledge that a number of regions in current production were not harvesting or shipping romaine at the onset of the outbreak and, consequently, could not be the source of the specific E. coli strain identified in the illnesses,” Tom Nassif, CEO of Western Growers, an association of growers in Arizona, California and New Mexico, said in a statement. “In light of this evidence, we urge the government’s health agencies to work with stakeholders to quickly narrow the scope of the investigation, and to remove these regions from the comprehensive advisory as soon as the safety of the public can be ensured.”

Gottlieb said a broad-brush approach was needed in the current outbreak because tracing lettuce back to its source is difficult and “a holiday weekend that's very food-centric” was fast approaching. The blanket advisory against serving, selling and eating romaine lettuce was issued Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving. 

Western Growers is one of seven producer associations that called on all links in the romaine lettuce supply chain to get ready for a resumption of shipments by sanitizing equipment that could have come in contact with the produce in recent weeks. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FDA’s infectious disease specialist, has not yet updated the number of victims involved in the outbreak, which was traced to romaine consumption between Oct. 8 and Oct. 31. As of Nov. 20, 18 people in the 11-state outbreak had been hospitalized, one with kidney failure. The affected states, and the number of victims in each, are California (10 people), Connecticut (one), Illinois (two), Maryland (one), Massachusetts (two), Michigan (seven), New Hampshire (two), New Jersey (two), New York (two), Ohio (one) and Wisconsin (one). 

The E. coli genetically matches the strain found in a contamination of leafy greens in late 2017, but is different from the version that sickened 200 who reported eating romaine lettuce in March and April. 

The FDA will investigate why romaine lettuce has been a source of several contaminations, Gottlieb indicated. He tweeted, “FDA will begin a special effort to sample, test romaine for contamination throughout the market; investigate why we see some continued risks with romaine; and if there are features related to its growing, harvesting, packaging that create risks.”

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