In an April 2018 recall for E. coli linked to romaine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration advised consumers not to eat chopped romaine from the Yuma, Ariz., area. In a November 2018 E. coli outbreak, the CDC advised consumers not to eat romaine from any area. ( File photo )

Recurring outbreaks of E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce have frustrated industry leaders and put on pause other industry food safety projects and priorities, Trevor Suslow says.

“I was joking yesterday and saying, you know we can’t get to (a particular project) because it got romained,” said Suslow, vice president of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association. 

Used in that context, “romained” is the one crisis that draws all the energy and focus from other issues.

Suslow said that has been the pattern for the past four years, when outbreaks have occurred just ahead of the transition of romaine production back to the desert.

At the United Fresh Produce Association’s Food Safety Council in mid-January, Suslow said a lot of the discussion was around the frustration of not being able to figure out the root causes of outbreaks.

Communication needed

Related to that reality of not being able to figure out the root cause of the outbreak, Suslow said, is the feeling that the federal health officials at the Food and Drug Administration are not bringing industry experts into their investigations earlier.

“A lot of my efforts have been to trying to build that capacity and trying to champion the argument for ways to improve involvement of industry and industry experts with FDA,” Suslow said. 

Those efforts aren’t getting the traction they need, he said, which is a “really strong frustration point.”

“The (dialogue with the FDA during investigations) just doesn’t happen, regardless of what they try and portray,” Suslow said. 

“I understand and appreciate that there’s some policy reasons for that, but it just absolutely has to get fixed because we’re not figuring out (root causes of outbreaks) and they certainly are not figuring it out.”

Suslow said he would like to see the FDA bring in preventive experts from the industry early on in investigations. While there are some confidentiality restrictions early in a emerging outbreak, Suslow said the FDA would benefit from bringing in industry experts that “take advantage of their knowledge of commerce, distribution planting areas, you know where product goes based on the cases as they develop across the states.” 

“You can go in (to the FDA) and they’re happy to talk to you,” he said. 

The industry can ask the FDA questions, but they are not responsive, Suslow said. There is zero information shared that the industry can use, he said.

“There is a model for doing (more extensive communication), but they just won’t do it,” he said.

“The industry is on a very short fuse, wanting a resolution of this,” Suslow said, indicating that many feel a political leadership solution is needed.

While the FDA often says they are frustrated with traceability issues, Suslow said that could change if the agency would “simply share some of that emerging data in real time with experts” that could give insight to their investigation earlier and perhaps prevent additional illnesses.

In three years of consecutive fall romaine outbreaks, he said the root cause of the outbreaks remains elusive.

“Contaminated water could easily be the symptom but not the root cause of what’s out there in the environment,” he said.

Lacking final answers, Suslow said the Center for Produce Safety is researching the seasonality of the E. coli outbreaks. 

“We try to bring all the parties together and bring all the data together to find the best research response, but also equally important, the best immediate actions that can inform industry of what to do.” 

Research is looking at agricultural water, soil amendments, hygienic design of equipment and other variables, he said. 

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