LA QUINTA, CALIF. — The partial government shutdown is curtailing federal involvement in the Romaine Task Force, but industry leaders are pushing ahead for a preliminary report by the end of February.
“Our goal is that by end of February to have a sense of where we are going, and (then) use time to get feedback from people,” said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, speaking at the group’s FreshStart 2019 event on Jan. 16.
She said the lack of FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention involvement with the task force is detrimental to the process, but said federal health officials will be brought back in as soon as the shutdown is over.
Headed by chairpersons Tom Stenzel, CEO and president of United Fresh and Cathy Burns, CEO and president of the Produce Marketing Association, said the Romaine Task Force include a collection of buyers, suppliers, federal health officials and association representative.
The FDA insisted on a strong buyer presence for the task force, she said.
The task force subcommittees include provenance labeling, prevention/science, traceability and investigation improvement.
Although romaine is the focus of the task force, she said the issues raised by multiple outbreaks linked to romaine over the past year are relevant to the entire industry. She urged United Fresh members to give input to issues raised by the task force.
Research needs to address how pathogens are transferred in the environment, McEntire said.
“How is that going to come back and be related to our crops and our operations?” she asked.
Whole-genome sequencing to identify specific strains of pathogens are now being put into a public database, whether they are produce, environmental or clinical isolates, McEntire said.
According to the FDA website, it is leading an international effort to build a network of laboratories that can sequence the genomes of foodborne pathogens and then upload the genomic sequence of the pathogen and where the sample was gathered into a public database.
McEntire said the whole genome sequencing database doesn’t necessarily provide quick answers.
“I look at the patterns, I look at the relationships and I start scratching my head and I start calling over to the Centers for Disease Control and ask ‘Is there something going on here? Is there something that I need to know, or that our members need to know?’” she said.
Federal health officials are fielding calls not only from United Fresh and industry groups, but from academic researchers and consumer groups, she said.
“This visibility of data prompts a lot of questions, and when we don’t know the distribution of pathogens in the environment, you don’t always have fantastic answers,” she said.
Another area of concern is how well health authorities are working together.
“We are seeing very broad advisories and we should question, we have questioned, how are agencies working together?
How are they working with other governments, especially when outbreaks span multiple countries?” McEntire said.
“What is the relationship between federal and state officials?”
She said those issues transcend romaine and leafy greens and extend to any commodity and any food product.
“We need to be concerned about what’s happening,” McEntire said.
The FDA and the CDC have told the industry that a big part of the reason for the very broad advisory on romaine this fall was because of the inability to quickly and effectively traced back to a very clear source.
“How can we take a look at what we are doing as a food industry overall?” she said.