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Romaine Lettuce E. Coli Analysis May Prevent Future Outbreaks: FDA

Following a massive Romaine lettuce recall in the U.S. earlier this year, which resulted in one of the largest E. coli outbreaks to affect produce in the last decade, federal regulators havre announced plans to implement new procedures to reduce the risk of widespread contamination. 

The FDA released findings of a comprehensive analysis of the recent romaine lettuce E. coli O157:H7 outbreak last week, indicating that the agency believes it needs to strengthen its ability to do traceback investigations for produce, to tackle similar outbreaks in the future.

Through the end of June 2018, federal health officials confirmed that at least 210 people from 36 different states were impacted by the Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak, which was linked to produce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region. The outbreak resulted in at least 5 deaths, 96 cases that required hospitalization and 27 individuals diagnosed with a severe type of kidney failure associated with food poisoning, known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

While the outbreak has been considered “over” since June 28, health officials initially struggled to determine the source of the illnesses. However, investigations ultimately confirmed the presence of E. coli in three samples of irrigation canal water collected during an investigation of lettuce grown in the Yuma region. The contaminated water is considered the most likely path for contamination. However, the strain of E. coli was not found in any of the other water samples collected in the region.

As the next growing season for Romaine lettuce in the Yuma region gets underway, regulators have expressed concern about the ability to prevent future widespread outbreaks.

It is unclear how the water contaminated the lettuce. One possibility includes irrigation canal water directly applied to the crop. Another option is irrigation canal water used to dilute crop protection chemicals applied to the crops through aerial and land-based spray application.

The method and time frame of contamination is also uncertain. Investigators indicated a large animal feeding operation is located adjacent to the irrigation canal. Yet, samples collected from the feeding operation were not positive for E.coli.

Much of the lettuce was sourced from multiple ranches. Documentation from each point on the supply chain was extensive and the majority of records maintained on the crops were on paper or handwritten.

As part of the recent analysis, FDA investigators concluded that the agency’s traceback procedure for outbreaks was inefficient. The findings indicated that focusing on standardized record keeping and other modernizations in the growing and packing process can help traceback procedures. Therefore, the agency plans to implement state-of-the-art technology for quick access to pertinent data and to focus on other approaches to standardize record keeping at the ranches and packing facilities.

“Going forward, both FDA and industry need to explore better ways to standardize record keeping and determine whether the use of additional tools on product packaging could improve traceability,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote in a November 1 press release. “We strongly encourage the leafy greens industry to adopt traceability best practices and state-of-the-art technologies to help assure quick and easy access to key data elements from farm to fork. We also strongly encourage the leafy greens industry to explore modern approaches to standardized record keeping and the use of additional tools or labels on product packaging that could improve traceability.”

The agency will also use new surveillance sampling methods to test for human pathogens in produce. If the produce is contaminated, the FDA will contact growers and take measures to investigate the contamination and remove the product from the market quickly.

The strain of E. coli STEC O26 is a foodborne bacteria that causes mild to severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps, bloody stools, and sometimes minor fevers lasting between 5 and 10 days. For individuals like young children, the sick and the elderly, the consequences may be more severe due to weakened immune systems.

The CDC estimates that roughly 48 million Americans are sickened by foodborne illnesses each year, causing around 130,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Foodborne illnesses, E. coli especially are easily transmitted by consuming, touching, drinking, or by some sort of physical transfer of the bacteria.

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