Government health agencies in the U.S. and Canada warned consumers, retailers and restaurants to avoid romaine lettuce Tuesday in yet another E. coli outbreak with cases in 11 states and Canada. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged all romaine lettuce be discarded after reporting that 32 people in the U.S. and 11 in Canada have been infected with E. coli 0157:H7. The strain has the same DNA fingerprint as the strain identified in a 2017 outbreak linked to romaine in Canada and to leafy greens in the U.S.
A group of produce industry associations say they are relying on producers and retail/restaurant customers to support the government health agency advisories and is urging an industry-wide voluntary withdrawal of all romaine currently in marketing channels and held in inventory. Additionally, food safety experts from the produce industry are preparing to closely examine information that may help in pinpointing the specific source of the outbreak utilizing the extensive traceback information maintained by leafy greens producers.
“Food safety is our top priority,” The United Fresh Produce Association said in a statement released Nov. 20. “We must take swift action to protect consumers by stopping shipment of romaine lettuce and withdrawing any product that has been shipped to retail stores or restaurants.”
The produce industry is working to achieve standardized, electronic (computerized) traceability across the supply chain through the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI). The initiative is a voluntary, industry-wide effort designed to help maximize the effectiveness of current track and trace procedures, while developing a standardized industry approach to enhance the speed and efficiency of traceability systems for the future.
During an August meeting, the PTI Leadership Council emphasized the importance of ongoing industry collaboration on traceability, and being able to track produce’s “last mile.” PTI Leadership Council Co-Chair Doug Grant of The Oppenheimer Group said, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) romaine outbreak investigation, combined with an increasing number of fresh produce recalls, highlight the need to be able to trace our products through to the retail level. And having more buyers step up and implement PTI at distribution center and store level will also send a strong vote of confidence to our supply chain about the need for and value of traceability.”
The value of traceability to control food safety issues is increasingly important to all segments of the food industry, and technology makes isolating contamination sources ever more possible.