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New voluntary labeling for romaine lettuce will help consumers avoid food poisoning but more action is needed to protect public health

Consumer Reports calls on FDA to require strong irrigation water safety standards and better industry tracking of produce to help solve outbreaks

WASHINGTON, D.C. – New voluntary labeling announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will help consumers avoid getting sick from contaminated romaine lettuce, but more action is needed to protect public health, according to Consumer Reports.

FDA has indicated that the romaine lettuce involved in the most recent E. coli outbreak was likely harvested from central and northern California growing regions.  However, production in that area has now ceased and most domestic romaine production has moved to Arizona for the winter.  Going forward, according to the FDA, leafy green producers have agreed to identify the region where their romaine lettuce was grown and the date it was harvested, either on product packaging or on labels at the point of sale.

Consumer Reports praised the new romaine labeling and called for it to be made permanent and broadened to all leafy greens, so consumers can avoid risky products when an outbreak is linked to a particular growing region.  The consumer group also urged the FDA to implement strong agricultural water safety standards and establish new industry requirements for comprehensive and rapid traceability of produce, including leafy greens.

“The new labeling for romaine lettuce is a positive step, but much more needs to be done to protect the public from these recurring, dangerous outbreaks of pathogens like E. coli,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumer Reports.  “The FDA should implement the water quality standards that it put on hold a year ago to ensure irrigation water is safe and sanitary.  Stronger industry recordkeeping requirements are also long overdue and sorely needed to help the FDA quickly identify the source of foodborne illness outbreaks.”

Recognizing that agricultural water can be a source of contamination for produce, Congress required the FDA in 2011 to implement new water quality and testing requirements for farmers as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  The FDA proposed new agricultural water rules in 2013, but announced last September that it was delaying their implementation until 2022 at the earliest.

In a letter sent to the FDA in May, Consumer Reports and other safety groups urged the agency to establish recordkeeping rules for high-risk foods as required under FSMA so it can more quickly trace the source of contamination.  Current federal rules require only “one step forward and one step back” recordkeeping by businesses involved in the food supply chain rather than a continuous record that tracks a product from the beginning to the end of the supply chain.  Under the current system,  tracing the movement of produce back through the supply chain to find the source of an foodborne illness outbreak has been arduous and time consuming.   FDA investigators have been plagued by a tangled web of inconsistent and inadequate records, sometimes handwritten.

Section 204 of FSMA requires the FDA to create enhanced recordkeeping requirements for high-risk foods.  Yet, more than seven years after the enactment of FSMA, the FDA has failed to carry out Congress’ mandate to create a list of high-risk foods and issue a proposed rule for enhanced recordkeeping.

Michael McCauley: mmccauley@consumer.org, 415-902-9537 (cell) or 415-431-6747 (office)