FDA Plans to Track ‘High Risk' Foods to Prevent Outbreaks

After 67 cases of E. coli in 19 states, including some cases of kidney failure, have been tied to romaine lettuce out of California, the FDA has agreed to create a system to prevent future outbreaks.

The latest outbreak comes a year after tainted romaine on the Central California coast sickened people ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. 

The lawsuit settlement now requires a mandatory record keeping system and the designation of high-risk foods which could potentially include leafy greens, with the aim of ending outbreaks.

"My children consume the very products we're sending out to consumers across the nation and that's something that I think about every day," Dan Sutton, a leafy greens farmer, said. 

Sutton grows his crops near San Luis Obispo under a strict program.  

It was created by a group known as California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in 2007 after an E. coli outbreak sickened more than 200 people.

The group says its farmers produce about 90% of the leafy greens grown in the U.S., up to 50 billion servings each year. 

"When an outbreak happens we are devastated," Sutton said.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises throwing out all romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, including pre-packaged salad mixes that may contain it, despite growers assuring all harvests from those crops has stopped. 

Looking ahead, growers say consumers should pay close attention to labels showing where a product is from. 

"The shippers that sell products work very closely with the retailers and restaurants to make sure products that are safe, identified as safe, makes it to store shelves," said Scott Horsfall, CEO of LGMA. 

The Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit against the FDA in 2018, saying because regulations mandated by Congress are not in place, the FDA was "...putting millions of lives at continued risk from contracting food-borne illnesses..."

In an email, the FDA said:

"We may never be able to stop every outbreak, but the work that has been done over the last several years has laid the foundation for a preventive framework intended to help us avoid contamination events in the first place. The tracing rule will enhance those efforts by helping to speed the identification and rapid removal of contaminated products from the market place; but our ultimate goal is to reduce those contamination events from ever happening and if they do, for industry to have the systems in place that allow them to identify the contaminated product before it reaches consumers." 

The Center for Food Safety says the facilities that handle these "high risk" foods will be able to trace back the source quicker and issue a targeted recall.

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