FDA to Differentiate Between Safe and Unsafe Romaine Lettuce

Agency is working on a new label for the leafy green
Photograph: Shutterstock

WASHINGTON -- Restaurants can resume serving romaine lettuce from all growing regions except the central coastal areas of central and Northern California, federal food safety authorities said Monday evening, greatly narrowing the scope of last week’s blanket warning that any form of the green could be contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that restaurants may need to check with their distributors and suppliers to verify the origin of the romaine they purchase. Consumers, meanwhile, are being advised by the CDC to forgo any romaine whose origin is not definitively known. “If you do not know where the romaine is from, do not eat it,” the agency said in an update on the outbreak.

Federal authorities are working with romaine suppliers, processors and distributors to create new labels indicating where the lettuce was grown and handled. “It may take some time before these labels are available,” the CDC said.

The call for new labels marks the first time the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pushed for place of origin information on produce packaging, an important advance in safeguarding the food supply, according to Creighton Magid, head of the Washington, D.C., office for the law firm Dorsey & Whitney. 

"Unlike manufactured products, which can be traced through serial numbers, a consumer generally has no way to know where fresh produce was grown. That makes tracing the source of an outbreak more difficult, and also prevents limiting recalls of produce to products of a particular farm or region," Magid said in a statement. "By encouraging place-of-origin labeling for romaine lettuce, the FDA is moving the entire produce industry toward labeling that will make outbreak response more effective and safety warnings to consumers more targeted."

The FDA advised restaurants and retailers on Nov. 20 to immediately stop selling romaine lettuce, regardless of its origin or preparation, and to throw away any supplies in storage. Suppliers had pushed the FDA to narrow the scope of its pre-Thanksgiving warning, noting that romaine harvesting is about to begin in Arizona, Florida, Mexico and some areas of California. Because that lettuce isn’t yet in the supply chain, it cannot be part of the contamination and hence is safe to eat, they argued. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb indicated in tweets last week that he was in agreement.

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 two days before Thanksgiving. 

The contamination has spread to a 12th state, Rhode Island, the CDC said in Monday’s update. The number of Americans who were sickened after eating lettuce has risen by 11, to 43 people, and the number of victims who were hospitalized has risen by three, to 16 people, including one suffering kidney failure. Several dozen poisoning incidents were also reported in Canada.

The tally of victims is highest for California, with 11, followed by New Jersey (nine), Michigan (seven) and New York (five). Two people were sickened in Illinois, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and single incidences of E. coli poisoning were reported in Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

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. 

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