Federal agencies’ response to the outbreak upset growers. Associations responded to get shelves restocked quickly.
After last month’s outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce, produce associations moved fast to respond to the problem and support guidelines to prevent future mass recalls of romaine.
On November 21, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a consumer advisory about the lettuce, which was connected to more than 60 illnesses in the United States and Canada. In addition, the FDA recommended that all romaine on store shelves at the time be destroyed. That move was met with criticism among growers, who argued that the romaine on store shelves at the time of the advisory was safe and shouldn’t have been implicated in a problem limited to a small amount of produce.
The industry’s response involved multiple partners, plus a lot of phone calls with agencies and members.
But such a limited advisory wasn’t feasible, according to Dr. Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association. “When the FDA alerted us to the nature of the advisory, they noted that the breadth and scope was due to the fact that consumers wouldn’t be able to take action if the advisory was more narrow, since they have no way of knowing the origin of romaine lettuce,” she said.
So as the CDC and FDA’s investigation into the outbreak continued, United Fresh jumped on “a lot of phone calls,” McEntire said, partnering with another leading trade group, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), to work with the federal agencies on an agreement to support voluntary labels that would prevent unnecessary destruction of produce. “In such broadly impactful situations, such as food safety, we come together on task forces and calls to work in an organized fashion to communicate to our industry members,” McEntire said. “We find it imperative to ensure we all have the same facts and are providing the industry with accurate and shared content, so they too feel confident speaking on the subject.”
United Fresh, PMA, and seven other associations agreed to introduce the new voluntary labeling guidelines, which are designed to inform consumers about where and when romaine lettuce is grown. That agreement prompted the FDA and CDC to lift its consumer advisory on November 26, less than a week after it was announced. And though the labeling is voluntary, the FDA has set up a caution sign around unlabeled romaine. “If it does not have this [labeling] information, you should not eat or use it,” it said in a statement.
The next task for the produce associations is to sort out what that labeling will look like. “The FDA advised consumers to look for information on the approximate harvest date and region, but left the details up to the industry to figure out,” McEntire said. Though labeled produce is already arriving on shelves, United Fresh and PMA has assembled a task force of members and experts to work on finetuning and plans to complete its work early in 2019.
Though the solution may not satisfy all growers and will take time to implement, McEntire said the associations involved are committed to it. “We acknowledge that this is a fluid situation, as any packaging change can be in an industry, but we commend the industry for proactively embracing a solution to the FDA that would allow the product to return to the marketplace,” she said. “Our job now is to continue to learn the burdens and hurdles this swift implementation is causing for our members and help to guide them in streamlining the process of clearly communicating to consumers, which is the end goal.”