Two days ahead of Thanksgiving, the most food-oriented holiday on the US calendar, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) called for a massive recall of all romaine lettuce. Consumers, retailers, and restaurants across the country (and in Canada) have been asked to discard their romaine lettuce. The warning applied to not only one brand or source of the leafy green, but all romaine. The lettuce had been linked to a reported outbreak of 32 cases of E. coli in 11 states, and 18 in Canada.
Certain strains of toxin-producing E. coli can lead to kidney failure and death.
“Consumers who have any type of romaine lettuce in their home should not eat it and should throw it away, even if some of it was eaten and no one has gotten sick,” the CDC warned. “If you do not know if the lettuce is romaine or whether a salad mix contains romaine, do not eat it and throw it away.”
Earlier this year, romaine lettuce led to the largest multi-state E. coli outbreak since 2006, with 172 people affected in 32 states. In total, E. coli in lettuce was responsible for five deaths between February and June. Over the summer, outbreaks of the intestinal parasite Cyclospora also led both McDonalds and Trader Joes to stop selling their salads and wraps.
The CDC now believes the most recent outbreak can be traced to California. The outbreak earlier this year was eventually traced to Yuma, Arizona, where most of the nation’s leafy greens are grown in the winter. The process of tracing the specific source of contamination is slow, and the nature of the supply chain for food means it’s extremely difficult to distinguish between contaminated lettuce and the rest. That’s why the CDC was forced to issue such a broad directive, and why plenty of perfectly good lettuce has been thrown out.
In 2002, the US Bioterrorism Act called for businesses to keep records of where each food item came from and went afterwards. But in 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services found that implementation of the rule was lacking – they were only able to trace five out of 40 food items to their origins. Many food items mix with food from other sources during processing and packing. A single package of vegetables, for example, often contains a mixture of items from different sources when it finally makes it to the consumer.
Writing for Wired shortly after news of the outbreak this past spring, Maryn McKenna suggested that blockchain may hold the answer. The technology, used in cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, is basically an encrypted ledger that records all transactions in chronological order.
She cites one pilot project in which a package of Walmart sliced mangos took almost a week to identify using paper and electronic records, while the same process took just two seconds using blockchain logs. This would no doubt be tough to implement, but such thorough and instantaneous tracking could save lives and prevent the disposal of huge quantities of clean food.
But so far, even more basic regulation has not taken hold. The Yuma outbreak was ultimately traced to infected water used for irrigation. After several similar outbreaks, lawmakers called for a solution in 2011, and Obama’s Food and Drug Administration crafted regulations requiring growers to test their water, which would have gone into effect this year.
But in response to pressure from the farm industry, and in line with its own agenda favoring deregulation, the Trump administration postponed the rules for at least another four years. And even after this year’s outbreaks and the associated death toll, Trump’s FDA hasn’t discussed any plans to reverse course. Instead, they are considering lowering the frequency of testing required, or looking for alternatives more palatable to the industry, which says such testing would be too expensive.
“The FDA has not yet done everything it can and should do to make sure we don’t have new outbreaks this season,” according to Consumer Reports director of food policy initiatives, Jean Halloran.
Investigators have found that, unusually, the strain of E. coli involved in this month’s outbreak was the exact same one that caused the outbreak this past spring.
Jeff Farber, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety (CRIFS), said:
“It means that they’ve never really solved the problem of where the E. coli strain is coming from.”
An Arizona industry task force has called for changes such as daily cleaning of equipment, closer review of crops after floods and wind, traceability measures, and a larger buffer zone between crops and cattle feedlots. But the regulations will only apply to members of the Arizona branch of the Leafy Greens Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA).
In Japan and the European Union, it’s taken for granted as a basic safety measure that rules are in place to trace food from farms to consumers. In the US, resistance from the food and shipping industries has largely won out against consumer safety concerns. Voluntary industry practices have proven to be insufficient. Repeated instances of deadly outbreaks from show the need to tighten regulations and implement measures to track supply chains. So far, the Trump administration has moved in the opposite direction.