Photo: Retailers pulled all romaine from shelves in the light of a broad CDC advisory Nov. 20.
In a trio of tweets a few days after federal agencies advised consumers to avoid all romaine lettuce, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb suggested the possibility of a new labeling standard that would aid in tracing products in future outbreaks.
Following Thanksgiving Day tweets that the Food and Drug Administration believes the E. coli-tainted romaine originated from California, Gottlieb said, “The goal now is to withdraw the product that’s at risk of being contaminated from the market, and then re-stock the market.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA announced the outbreak on Nov. 20, asking all levels of the supply chain to remove romaine from the market, and any that had been harvested but not shipped. Thirty-two people in the U.S. and 18 people in Canada became ill with E. coli from mid-October to early November.
In a Nov. 23 tweet, Gottlieb noted that romaine from different growing regions — Arizona and Florida — will soon be harvested.
“We’re working with growers and distributors on labeling produce for location and harvest date and possibly other ways of informing consumers that the product is ‘post-purge,’” he tweeted.
“We want to help unaffected growers get back into production and enable stores and consumers to re-stock,” Gottlieb tweeted. “One goal 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.”
On Thanksgiving, Gottlieb used Twitter to explain the decision to call for all romaine to be removed from the commerce stream.
“Some lettuce packing is labeled in a way that doesn’t make it clear where the product was grown,” he tweeted. “If you look at a package of lettuce, it’s most likely going to have the address of the company on the back, not the location of the growing fields.”
The United Fresh Produce Association on Nov. 20 advised companies to quickly comply with the CDC advisory and urged anyone contacted by regulatory agencies to help and make shipping records available. But United Fresh also requested federal agencies to consider narrowing down the regions where romaine had been harvested when illnesses were reported, roughly mid- to late October.
“This is an extremely broad warning to consumers to not eat any type of romaine from any growing region,” according to a member alert from United Fresh. “Despite our urging that industry could clearly identify some sources of romaine coming onto the market as not related to the outbreak, CDC and FDA are also requesting the voluntarily withdrawal of romaine lettuce before it enters commerce.”
According to United Fresh, romaine from Yuma, Ariz., was not in the market when the first illnesses were reported in mid-October.
Western Growers also asked regulators to use harvest and illness onset dates to target the possible growing region.
“ … 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,” Western Growers said in a statement Nov. 21. “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.”