Packer Interview - Jennifer McEntire Nov. 27
Romaine will be returning to stores and foodservice operators after growers, shippers and processors of the lettuce agreed to put labels alerting customers and consumers where it was grown and when it was packed. ( File photo )

See related story: Industry adopts new labels, product returns to shelves


(UPDATED) The Food and Drug Administration says romaine lettuce is now safe to eat following the “purge” of product on the market, and will allow supplies to resume, after grower-shippers agreed to new labeling standards that will include where the lettuce is grown.

The agreement, negotiated by romaine grower-shippers, processors and industry associations, will be the new standard for romaine packed in the U.S. The standards follow an E. coli outbreak linked to 43 illnesses in the U.S. and 22 in Canada, as of Nov. 26.

 “A number of produce associations also have agreed to support this initiative and are recommending that all industry members throughout the supply chain follow this same labeling program,” according to the United Fresh Produce Association, in an e-mail alert to members Nov. 26 sent several hours before the FDA released a statement lifting the advisory that virtually banned romaine in the U.S.

According to the FDA statement, the new labels are voluntary, but its updated message to consumers suggests it’s against shippers’ interest to forego the label:

“Based on discussions with major producers and distributors, romaine lettuce entering the market will now be labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date,” according to the FDA. “Romaine lettuce entering the market can also be labeled as being hydroponically or greenhouse grown. If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it.”

The FDA is advising retailers to display signs about the origin of romaine products when they’re not individually packaged, such as bulk displays of unwrapped heads of romaine.

In their investigation, federal, state and local health agencies focused on Central Coast growing region of Northern and Central California. Since the report of the illnesses, mid-October to early November, harvest has shifted to other areas, including California’s Imperial Valley, the Yuma, Ariz., region and Florida.

The FDA also singled out greenhouse and hydroponically grown romaine in its Nov. 26, growers of which have been critical of the decision to remove all romaine from the market Nov. 20.

“Hydroponically- and greenhouse-grown romaine also does not appear to be related to the current outbreak. There is no recommendation for consumers or retailers to avoid using romaine harvested from these sources,” according to the FDA statement.

United Fresh compiled a list of questions and answers relating to the new labels.

The industry and FDA have agreed to work together to improve tracking romaine through the supply chain, according to the United Fresh alert. The groups that worked on the labeling agreement also include:

  • Produce Marketing Association;
  • Western Growers;
  • Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements;
  • Grower-Shipper Association of Central California;
  • Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association;
  • Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association; and
  • Yuma Safe Produce Council.

 “Our associations are committed to working with FDA in a new effort with experts from within and outside the industry, together with government, to implement improved procedures that enhance the speed and accuracy of investigations,” according to United Fresh. “Moving forward, our efforts to enhance strong traceability systems will be most beneficial for consumers only if coupled with expert epidemiological methodology, accelerated investigations with sufficient resources, and government-industry expert collaboration that allow us all to pinpoint the source of contaminated product resulting in more targeted recalls.”


Post-purge return

Before the FDA released its statement, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb appeared on Fox News’ “The Daily Briefing” to talk with host Dana Perino about a variety of issues, including the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine.

“I understand the impact this has not just on consumers but growers, but we had clear evidence that there was an outbreak and that product that was contaminated was still in the marketplace, so it was important to purge the market of that produce —"

“Has the market been purged now?” Perino asked.

“We think it’s been done now, so we’re going to put out a statement a little later today saying that we think we’ve isolated the problem to produce grown in the coastal regions of California, of Central and Northern California, and that produce that’s grown in other parts of the country …  it’s probably safe to put back into commerce now.

“So what we wanted to do was purge the market of the produce that was probably contaminated, which has now been isolated, we think, to California, and now stores can start restocking with produce that’s being harvested from Florida or North Carolina or other parts of the country,” Gottlieb said.

Submitted by Michael Cutler on Tue, 11/27/2018 - 16:25

My colleagues and I are mystified by the inability of the Romaine Industry, the FDA and the CDC to properly trace back the romaine lettuce suspected of e-coli to determine the grower or growers responsible.
As onion growers, we are required to maintain perfect trace back records and do so.
We smell something fishy, both this time and the same inability to trace back problem Romaine lettuce several months ago, when a similar e-coli problem occurred. Possible cover-up to protect some big boys?
Michael Cutler Company

Submitted by Matt L on Tue, 11/27/2018 - 19:15

Well said Michael. I too was under the impression traceback protocols were set in place for growers years ago. Why are rules for keeping traceback records only required by some growers and not others? It should be across the board... Do you get a premium for your product because you do your due diligence??? Doubt it!

Submitted by Danni Barnhart on Wed, 11/28/2018 - 15:36

👏👏👏👏 Completely agree!!! It absolutely was a cover up.