Romaine lettuce on a wooden cutting board

E. Coli Outbreak Reveals a Fragile Food Chain

Denis Storey
May 10, 2018

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Food safety is something we all take for granted until we can’t.

The ongoing – and growing – horror story of romaine lettuce tainted with E. coli continues to dominate headlines. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the deadly outbreak has spread to 149 people in 29 states. The CDC reported that Florida, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Texas the latest states to report cases of E. coli tied to the Yuma, Arizona, lettuce. 

This strain of E. coli is particularly harsh, sending more than half of its victims to the hospital. And while the CDC reveals that the most recent documented case occurred on April 25, more could be on the way.

“Illnesses that occurred in the last two to three weeks might not yet be reported because of the time between when a person becomes ill with E. coli and when the illness is reported to the CDC,” the agency declared in its latest report on the outbreak.

Our food supply chain’s fragility is not something lost on the attendees at this year’s Rocky Mountain Food Safety Conference, which took place in Arvada, Colorado, this week. Hundreds of food safety professionals and regulators gathered to discuss the latest trends and best practices. The concern in the room was palpable.

But one startling message that emerged from this year’s meeting was how dependent the CDC is on municipal and state reporting agencies – which are only as good as the medical providers on the front lines. If the doctors treating these illnesses don’t report the cases promptly – or at all – it makes it impossible for federal agencies like the CDC, the FDA, and the UDSA to do their jobs.

But even when the reporting is timely and accurate, it’s still a time-consuming process to track down tainted foods and get them off grocery store shelves and restaurant kitchens. Even in this always-on, always-connected era, lab tests and subject interviews take weeks, if not months, to complete. And that’s with the best of cooperation.

In retrospect, it’s alarming that the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which is less than eight years old, ushered in the first mandatory federal standard for growing, harvesting, packing, and storing fresh produce. It’s even more troubling that the FSMA-mandated on-site inspections of produce farms are still a year away. And it’s frustrating that the same news outlets that publish the latest reports of E. coli infections also announce the latest delays in other FSMA provisions.

That’s why FSMA’s laser focus on prevention is so critical. That’s why the Food and Drug Administration is trying to “educate while we enforce.” That’s why suppliers and manufacturers have to treat this like its life or death because it is.

But consumers have to do their part as well. As one speaker, an FDA employee, pointed out, “Consumers have a lot more power over the food industry than the FDA.”

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