Jan 16, 2020
Romaine outbreak declared over; safety efforts up

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared Jan. 15 the e. Coli outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce grown in the Salinas, California, region over and the agencies lifted the consumer advisory. In a statement, the FDA said there is no longer a need for consumers to avoid romaine lettuce from Salinas.

The statement noted that FDA and CDC have been tracking three outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce. The statement reads as follows: “Federal health officials are declaring two multi-state romaine lettuce outbreaks over. One of the outbreaks sickened 167 people in 27 states. The other outbreak, linked to Fresh Express salad kits, sickened 10 people in five states. There was also a third outbreak in Washington State that sickened 11 people. This outbreak has also been declared over.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local partners, previously reported on Dec. 12 that public health experts were tracking three separate outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce caused by three different strains of E. coli O157:H7. We also reported that, through the FDA’s traceback investigation, we were able to identify a common grower between each of these outbreaks in Salinas, California based on available supply chain information.

On Jan 15, the FDA provided an update on the status of the E. coli O157:H7 illnesses linked to romaine lettuce, along with recent findings based on our investigation of fields linked to a common grower, which was identified in our traceback. It should be noted that romaine from this grower does not explain all of the illnesses seen in these outbreaks.

Outbreaks declared over, consumer advisory lifted

The FDA lifted the consumer advisory to avoid romaine lettuce from Salinas as the growing season for this region is over, and “there is no longer a need for consumers to avoid it. There is also no need to avoid other produce products from Salinas.”

The FDA and CDC have been tracking two multi-state romaine lettuce outbreaks. According to a news release, federal health officials are declaring both multi-state romaine lettuce outbreaks over. One of the outbreaks sickened 167 people in 27 states. The other outbreak, linked to Fresh Express salad kits, sickened 10 people in five states.

There was also a third outbreak in Washington state that sickened 11 people. This outbreak has also been declared over.

The last reported illness onset date for all the outbreaks was Dec. 21. Based on this information, it appears that our Nov. 22 advisory to not eat romaine from Salinas played an important role in preventing illnesses and containing this outbreak because it prompted the removal of romaine lettuce from Salinas from the marketplace and warned consumers to throw away romaine from that growing region.

Common grower, multiple fields investigated

According to an FDA news release:

“The FDA traceback investigation for these outbreaks required investigators to go through hundreds of supply chain records to find a commonality to a single grower with multiple fields. We were able to narrow this down further to at least 10 fields in the lower Salinas Valley.

Investigators from the FDA, CDC, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Public Health, visited several of these fields and took a variety of samples from water, soil and compost. So far, sample results have come back negative for all of the three outbreak strains of E. coli O157:H7. However, we did find a strain of E. coli that is unrelated to any illnesses in a soil sample taken near a run-off point in a buffer zone between a field where product was harvested and where cattle are known to occasionally graze. This could be an important clue that will be further examined as our investigation continues. However, this clue does not explain the illnesses seen in these outbreaks.

Our investigation is ongoing, and we are doing everything possible to find the source or sources of contamination. The investigation into how this contamination occurred is important, so romaine growers can implement measures that will prevent future contamination and illnesses.

The FDA is planning to conduct an additional, in-depth, root-cause investigation. The investigation will further characterize how contamination might have occurred and will inform what preventive controls are needed to prevent future outbreaks. Once complete, we plan to issue a prompt report and share lessons learned, so that growers can implement best practices to protect consumers from contaminated produce.”

Investigation will inform future prevention

The FDA news release continued:

“As we mentioned in our last update, it is important to remember that millions of servings of fresh leafy greens are safely eaten every day by consumers, although the repeat nature of these outbreaks linked to leafy greens – and more specifically to romaine lettuce – remains a concern.

We are doing our part by continuing our sampling assignment to monitor for pathogens in romaine lettuce across the nation. Industry can and must do their part too. Everyone across the romaine supply chain must do everything possible to fully understand why and how these outbreaks keep happening and continue to aggressively implement preventive measures to further protect consumers.”

Outbreaks illustrate need to stay focused on prevention

The FDA said “i’s critical that all stakeholders, including growers, processors, distributors and retailers, stay laser-focused on prevention to help bend the curve of foodborne illness. We understand the importance of food safety, and we know there’s a human face to every foodborne illness.

The FDA remains committed to doing everything we can to prevent outbreaks, working with fellow regulators and the food industry to identify and address causes and keep consumers aware of potential risks.

Rest assured that we are working hard every day to try to prevent foodborne illness. We also know that food safety is a shared responsibility. It involves food producers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers and certainly regulatory officials at the federal, state, local, territorial and tribal levels. That’s why we work directly with our partners on things such as training and inspections. We also work closely with industry, so they understand our requirements and are educated on the latest scientific standards and good agricultural practices. Working together, we have and will continue to advance food safety.”

A new era of smarter food safety

According to the FDA news release, “While we will always place emphasis on prevention, being able to promptly respond to an outbreak when it occurs is a critical part of our food safety mission.

As public health agencies have gotten better at detecting foodborne illnesses, our ability to trace back to the source of contaminated foods that may have caused the illnesses has lagged, due in part to the lack of modernized food traceability capabilities.

As part of the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative, we plan to use advances in technology to improve our ability to track and trace products through the supply chain. We’ll be launching a New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint in early 2020 that will outline how we will advance our work in this area. This blueprint will help consumers get information more quickly, enabling people to better protect themselves and their families.

We look forward to continuing our work with growers, processors, distributors and retailers in our shared efforts to protect consumers, and we will continue to provide updated information as it becomes available.”

The FDA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, protects the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices. The agency also is responsible for the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products.

LGMA leads way to take prevention action

Since the consumer advisory was first issued on Nov. 21, 2019 California leafy greens growers have taken action to prevent future outbreaks.

“The industry is enforcing upon themselves even more stringent food safety requirements than were previously in place through the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO if the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a food safety program established in 2007 to address food safety issues concerning leafy greens.

“We need to prevent this from happening again,” said Steve Church of Church Brothers, a leading producer of romaine lettuce and a member of the board of the California LGMA.  “These outbreaks are devastating to our industry as well as to consumers and they absolutely must stop.”

At a recent meeting of the LGMA, leaders from throughout the California leafy greens community agreed it is industry’s responsibility to strengthen their mandatory food safety practices even further.

“We have to take control of our own destiny,” said Dan Sutton, a leafy greens producer who serves as Chairman of the LGMA. “The LGMA exits to establish food safety standards for farming leafy greens. We need a focused industry-wide effort to figure out what’s happening in the environment where we farm. The members of the LGMA are committed to making real changes to improve the safety of our product.”

The LGMA acknowledged all of the work being done by FDA to help determine the exact cause of recent outbreaks. Details of the investigation are outlined in today’s statement but, to date, investigators have been unable to determine the source of the outbreaks.

According to the FDA, “Our investigation is ongoing, and we are doing everything possible to find the source or sources of contamination. The investigation into how this contamination occurred is important, so romaine growers can implement measures that will prevent future contamination and illnesses.”

“The leafy greens community is extremely motivated to get to the bottom of this and we want to be more involved,” said Jan Berk of San Miguel Produce who serves as vice-chairman of the LGMA. “The FDA investigators are not farmers. They don’t know what’s going on in our fields the way we do. We are the ones who need to fix this.”

Work is already underway to do just that.

“The LGMA is currently conducting a systematic overhaul of the food safety practices included in our program,” explained Horsfall. “We’re working with our industry partner Western Growers to conduct an open, transparent review of the required food safety practices under the LGMA. We will be bringing in outside expertise so that we can incorporate new knowledge and research.”

Additionally, a special meeting hosted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is being planned for February 4 in Salinas.  Growers are being invited to participate in a discussion about research opportunities available through a broad study that will monitor environmental conditions in California that may be contributing to outbreaks.

“Our goal is to work in conjunction with leafy greens growers and with the U.S. FDA to resolve the problems that continue to impact romaine,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “The LGMA and the entire leafy greens industry has been extremely cooperative in these efforts. We all want to see an end to these outbreaks so that consumers can have confidence in eating leafy greens. We owe this to our consumers and to our growers.”

Horsfall emphasized that actions being taken by the LGMA demonstrate the industry’s commitment to making changes in their food safety practices.

“The benefit of the LGMA system is that when we make changes to our requirements, they are implemented on thousands of farms that produce over 90 percent of leafy greens grown in the U.S,” he said.  “Government auditors will then verify growers are following the new practices through mandatory government audits.  No other food safety program in the world has this capability.”





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