How Safe Is Your Salad? FDA Not Ready For Outbreaks According to New Investigative Report

Lettuce Farm         Photo: Caitlin O’Hara, The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe and NBC News did an in-depth investigation of the E. coli outbreaks of 2018 and found that there are serious issues with the FDA’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to outbreaks of this potentially deadly illness because the antiquated system the agency has to trace the source of contamination takes so long that by the time it finds a definitive link to a particular farm the tainted product is often off the market.  USA Today reported that it took the FDA three months to say that the most recent E. coli outbreak from contaminated lettuce last November “appears to be over,” according to federal officials in mid-January.

Why This Matters:  As we begin to panic about coronavirus, we may be missing the bigger risk to our health right there in our salad bowl.  Food safety systems are something only the government can reliably provide — when it comes to food safety and our health, self-regulation does not work.  In the case of the 2018 outbreaks, the farm that was the source of the contamination never admitted it publicly.  Most important is that the government must penalize those who are responsible and ensure the pollution that leads to any E. coli contamination is cleaned up.  That never happened in the case of the 2018 outbreak.  Sometimes the FDA is so late to the problem no food is recalled as a result.  In the latest outbreak, they know that at least 167 people in 27 states were infected with E. coli and of those 85 were hospitalized and 15 developed kidney failure.  We are the richest country in the world.  We should be able to do better.

The Challenges With Detection and Enforcement

According to the investigative report, U.S. lettuce production has increased greatly — nearly 50 percent since 2000, reaching 4 billion pounds in 2018, according to the federal government.   But some varieties of lettuce like romaine are more susceptible to the particular strain of E. coli called “Shiga Toxin producing E. coli” (or STEC 0157:H7) because they grow close to the ground, offer easy access for E. coli to latch onto them through soil or by water. And irrigation systems that keep the lettuce growing in dry areas are also problematic because E. coli often settles into sediments at the bottom of the canals that bring water to crops.  This particular strain of E. coli is also difficult to trace because there is a lag time before the people who have been infected show symptoms and those symptoms vary greatly with some people getting very sick while others can recover more quickly.

But the government fundamentally lacks the resources to deal with these outbreaks.  According to The Globe, the “FDA deploys a modest, overworked team that struggles to handle the workload, especially during a contamination crisis.”  Another problem cited by the Globe is agency cautiousness  — they do not want to issue a false alarm that could damage public trust in the FDA — and needlessly alarm consumers. In addition, the FDA releases “only limited information about retailers selling potentially contaminated produce, arguing that the disclosure could reveal ‘trade secrets’ or information desired by competing stores.” After the 2018 outbreaks, the lettuce industry created a task force made up of 100 industry representatives — they called for longer distances between romaine lettuce fields and large-scale cattle feeding operations — but this is a voluntary measure.

To Go Deeper:  We recommend reading the full Boston Globe expose here. It is worth your time.

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