December 15, 2019

Romaine Lettuce Labeling Begins In Wake of E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA Commissioner, released a statement saying that romaine lettuce labeling will begin in wake of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that has sickened at least 43 people. Growers are going to start labeling the place of origin on their products to help consumers avoid potentially contaminated lettuce. Before this announcement, government officials told consumers to avoid all romaine lettuce because they did not know where it originated.

Romaine Lettuce Labeling

His statement reads, in part, “Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the FDA continued to investigate the outbreak. Our investigation at this point suggests that romaine lettuce associated with the outbreak comes from areas of California that grow romaine lettuce over the summer months, and that the outbreak appears to be related to “end of season” romaine lettuce harvested from these areas. The involved areas include the Central Coast growing regions of central and northern California.”

“At the time of the outbreak, the vast majority of the romaine on the market was being grown in the Central Coast region of California. Since, then harvesting of romaine lettuce from this region has ended for the year. Growing and harvesting of romaine lettuce is now shifting to the winter growing regions of the U.S., which include mainly the California desert region of the Imperial Valley, the desert region of Arizona in and around Yuma, and Florida.”

The FDA wanted a “clean break” in the romaine supply before the product was restocked. FDA requested that growers withdraw romaine from the marketplace on November 20, 2018, the same day that the outbreak was announced.

The FDA has discussed this issue with producers, and distributors of romaine lettuce, and with major trade associations representing the product industry. They have agreed to label the origin of romaine based on harvest region, along with the date of harvest. That means the FDA will be able to give consumers more targeted and detailed information in the event of a future outbreak.

Dr. Gottlieb’s statement also says, “The FDA also has commitments from the romaine lettuce industry that such labeling will continue into the future and become the standard for their products.” Traceback for the past two romaine lettuce outbreaks has been difficult since many records were handwritten and products were not labeled with the area of origin.

Gottlieb continues to warn consumers that if they cannot identify where the romaine lettuce they are thinking about purchasing came from, to avoid it. Romaine harvested outside of the Central Coast growing regions of northern and central California, along with hydroponically- and greenhouse-grown romaine “does not appear to be related to the current outbreak.”

Packages should be labeled. And when a product can’t be labeled, such as whole heads of romaine lettuce, there should be labeling that is clear and prominent at the point of sale.

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