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.
CHICAGO -- Convenience stores need formal food-safety programs for millions of reasons, many of which operators are already familiar with, said Donna Hood Crecca, associate principal for data firm Technomic, during CSP’s C-Store Foodservice Forum in Chicago.
Perhaps a lesser-known case for crafting a culture of foodservice safety is employee engagement. “For the workers themselves, that makes them very invested in contributing for the quality and safety of product they put out,” Crecca said.
Here's a look at four ways c-stores are developing committed team members and reliable menu offerings by incorporating food safety into every level of their programs ...
Retailers recently have come to realize that no current c-store is a perfect model for food-safety practices; even the superpremium-tier chains want to improve their practices, said Jennifer Hutto, foodservice category manager for c-store distributor McLane Co. Inc., Temple, Texas. Retailers, distributors and suppliers need to make sure they are working together to execute these complicated foodservice procedures, Hutto said.
“We have to make sure we’re using all parties,” she said. “I hear suppliers say they’re willing to train employees on how to use their products, but I don’t often hear people taking them up on that.”
Streamlined communication with suppliers and distributors could also help circumvent food-safety issues. Trisha Transue, foodservice manager for retailer Top Star Inc., Emmaus, Pa., said she has developed a phenomenal working relationship with her food distributor representative by keeping the lines of communication wide open. “She said please copy me in whenever you talk to a supplier,” Transue said. “Just [copying] her on those communications has eliminated barriers. She’ll chime in on things I don’t think about.”
Photo courtesy of Aquir.
Creating a culture of food safety is a full-time job, Transue said. The Top Star team has trained its entire operations team to prioritize food safety. Even the foodservice team’s marketing leader picks up product and checks freshness dates, she said. To bring the whole team into the chain’s food-safety initiatives, Transue recommends finding a manager with a restaurant background. “If you don’t currently have a restaurant person running your food, I beg you find one,” she said. “We look at things very differently than our c-store counterparts. I look at food costs, not gross profit. We look at waste differently.”
C-store operator United Pacific formed about two years ago and is working on growing its foodservice program across its different brands. To do that, the retailer plans to recruit team members with foodservice backgrounds. “We really are going to focus on acquiring people from the [quick-service] segment to get more people who are familiar with food into our stores to help us ... focus on foodservice culture,” said Doug Hecker, vice president of marketing and operations for the Long Beach, Calif.-based chain.
Photo courtesy of Kondor83.
Sometimes it’s about perception when it comes to food safety, said Erica Ventura, operations manager for Top Star. When employees wash their hands in the bathroom and return to the line, Ventura asks them to wash their hands again. “I say, ‘Well, the customer wasn’t in the bathroom with you to see you wash your hands,’ ” she said. “You come back from the bathroom and you wash your hands.” At some of the chain’s units with Subway restaurants, there are soap dispensers on the counter to ensure team members are adequately washing their hands.
Photo courtesy of Sasiistock.
Retailer QuickChek Corp. has designated quality-assurance auditors to check the cleanliness of stores and ensure team members are following food-safety procedures. “We have auditors from operations backgrounds, so we have people who think the way our foodservice team does,” said Nicole Remo, associate category manager for the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based chain.
Photo courtesy of Tashatuvango.