Following a dangerous outbreak of E. coli traced to romaine lettuce that sickened 32 people across 11 states, major leafy-greens producers agreed to label their packed romaine by region or state and by harvest date. The change will happen “immediately,” said six of the largest growers in a letter sent to the FDA on Nov. 25.
All romaine lettuce in the U.S. was pulled from store shelves Nov. 20 in a recall led by the FDA and all consumers, restaurants, and other institutions advised to get rid of any romaine on hand. The FDA made this move in an abundance of caution as the origin of the contaminated lettuce wasn’t known and remains unknown.
In a voluntary agreement, companies told the FDA they would mark lettuce sold bagged or in mixes, and would provide details to retailers who sell loose leaves and whole romaine heads, and to restaurants that purchase it wholesale. The labeling will start with lettuce harvested starting November 23.
Products will say, “Romaine grown in and harvest after [date],” the growers said. It will include all locations for lettuces combined from multiple sources. Harvesting is just beginning in Yuma, Arizona, on the Mexican broder, and in Florida. The labeling should allow these new supplies of romaine to hit store shelves and wholesalers.
The particular strain of E. coli discovered in romaine lettuce produces Shiga toxins, which are among the most potent toxins known to exist, and which can lead to severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. While unpleasant and may lead to hospitalization, most people recover. The CDC estimates 265,000 cases a year of illness from Shiga toxins from E. coli spread by animals and people, but just 30 deaths.
As the FDA chief, Scott Gottlieb, noted on Nov. 22 on Twitter, there’s currently no way to know where romaine was picked. The FDA will also start to sample romaine lettuce for contamination throughout the food supply chain.
A limited recall of romaine in May 2018 led to $70 million less in sales from April to June than in the same period the previous year, according to an industry report.
The FDA said it’s also assembling a task force that will examine in the next 90 days which other greens need similar labeling, such as spinach and other types of lettuce, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The agreement was signed by major romaine producers Church Brothers/True Leaf Farms, Dole Fresh Vegetables, Earthbound Farm Organic, FiveStar Gourmet Foods/Simply Fresh, Fresh Express, and Taylor Farms, and supported by trade groups that include the United Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association, and Western Growers.