Where does the food industry stand on romaine lettuce?

Romaine lettuce has proven to be a divisive product within the food industry in recent years. Following two major recalls in 2018 due to E. coli contamination, retailers and restaurants were left scrambling to get romaine off their shelves and tables while also finding replacement solutions. Growers were left in an even hairier predicament as consumers began to question the safety of not only romaine, but also other leafy greens.

Three months after being given the all-clear by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the industry is dealing with the aftermath of the recalls and is attempting to find ways to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

The issue at hand

Two E. coli-related romaine lettuce recalls rocked the food industry in 2018, the first of which occurred in March and sickened 210 people across 36 states, and was eventually linked to romaine that was grown in the Yuma, Ariz., region. The second recall, which was announced just two days before Thanksgiving, affected 62 people across 16 states and was linked to lettuce from select Northern and Central California growing regions.

During the second recall, the CDC advised consumers to throw away any romaine lettuce and told restaurants and retailers to discontinue selling or serving it -- regardless of the origin of the lettuce in hand. That recall lasted several weeks and left the food industry dealing with massive fallout.

Finding solutions

In an effort to stem future outbreaks and recalls, several agencies and groups are working together to find solutions. The Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force was formed following last year’s first romaine recall and aims to address foodborne illness issues caused by leafy greens while focusing on preventing them from occurring in the future. The organization represents growers, shippers, trade organizations and government entities, and is currently putting together new water guidelines for growers.

While the FDA has wrapped up its investigation into last year’s outbreaks, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the agency is still looking for solutions. “We’ll continue to work with [the] industry to explore better ways to assure quick, accurate and easy access to key traceability information,” Gottlieb said in an announcement. “The FDA believes that widespread industry adoption of existing and emerging technologies, which can be used to trace product from the field to the consumer in real time, is a critical piece of our ability to protect the public.”

Additionally, the Food Marketing Institute’s Food Protection Committee has put together a plan to help food retailers and wholesalers during potential outbreaks and recalls. “Public health is priceless, and preventing contamination is always the priority, followed by detection and response,” writes FMI’s Hilary Thesmar. “The watchful work of food safety may not get easier anytime soon, necessitating that we work together to learn from every incident while sharing the common goal of selling safe food to our customers.”

The Produce Marketing Association is also working with United Fresh Produce Association to provide consumers with information regarding where their romaine lettuce was grown. The associations’ interim, voluntary labeling initiative is encouraged by the FDA and asks processors, retailers, foodservice providers and restaurants to readily label their products with the correct growing region in order to give consumers as much information as possible.

Best practices focus on inspections, traceability

Food companies are also working toward best practices to help keep E. coli and other pathogens at bay. California produce supplier Bonduelle Fresh Americas, for example, is keeping its vegetables and leafy greens safe by focusing on water safety. The company has inspected all of its irrigation systems and treatment methods over the past several months and is using information from the inspections to establish requirements for its growers in an effort to reduce risks of pathogens.

Meanwhile, several grocers and CPG companies have joined IBM’s Food Trust network, which is based on blockchain technology and helps trace products from the farm to the store shelf. While this won’t stop contamination from happening, it will help get the root of the problem faster.

There are more than 80 participants in the program, including Kroger, Dole, Nestle, Tyson Foods and Walmart, which has also asked its leafy greens suppliers to implement blockchain tracking by this September. Albertsons also recently joined the IBM consortium and will initially monitor bulk romaine lettuce from one of its distribution centers, then eventually expand the process to other items in its food supply chain.

"Blockchain technology has the potential to be transformational for us as we further build differentiation on our fresh brand," said Anuj Dhanda, chief information officer of Albertsons, in a press release. "Food safety is a very significant step. In addition, the provenance of the products enabled by blockchain -- the ability to track every move from the farm to the customer's basket -- can be very empowering for our customers."

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