Romaine lettuce recall emphasizes need for food safety bill

May 9, 2010
Freshway Foods has issued a voluntary recall for products containing romaine lettuce with a use by date of May 12 or earlier because they have the potential to be contaminated with E. coli O145 bacteria. The products were sold under the Freshway brand and Imperial Sysco brand.   This recall includes romaine lettuce products sold by Freshway Foods for foodservice outlets, wholesale, and in-store retail salad bars and delis; no other products are involved. The recalled romaine lettuce products were sold to wholesalers and foodservice outlets in the following states east of the Mississippi river: Alabama, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.   The recalled romaine products were also sold for distribution to in-store salad bars and delis for Kroger, Giant Eagle, Ingles Markets, and Marsh stores in the states listed.   Freshway Foods traced the entire lot of romaine products and is advising customers to cease use and distribution of it immediately. This recall may be linked to an outbreak investigation in New York, Michigan and Ohio.   Owners of restaurants, in-store salad bars, in-store delis and other foodservice outlet operators who have questions may call their Freshway Foods representative or visit the company's website for updates, including disposition of recalled products.   FDA support   The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a statement supporting Freshway Foods' recall. The FDA reports that on May 5, 2010, the New York state Public Health Laboratory, Wadsworth Center, in Albany reported finding E. coli O145 in an unopened bag of Freshway Foods shredded romaine lettuce now being recalled.   Multiple lines of evidence have implicated shredded romaine lettuce from one processing facility as a source of infections in a multistate outbreak to which this recall may be related.   To date, 19 confirmed cases of E. coli O145 illnesses have been reported from Michigan, Ohio, and New York. These illnesses include 12 individuals who have been hospitalized, and three with a potentially life-threatening complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS is a serious condition in which the body's blood-clotting mechanisms are altered, causing blocked circulation or bleeding in the brain or kidneys.   The evidence includes preliminary results of product traceback investigations that indicate:
  • The shredded romaine lettuce consumed by ill persons in three states originated from one processing facility
  • Preliminary results of a case-control study in one state that found a statistically significant association between E. coli O145 infection
  • Ingestion of lettuce from the same processing facility and recovery of E. coli O145 from an unopened package of shredded romaine lettuce from the same processing facility that was obtained from a food service entity associated with the outbreak
For more information on the outbreak of foodborne illness to which this recall may be related, please see The FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health officials in Michigan, New York, and Ohio continue to investigate that outbreak and will provide updates as more information is available.   Meanwhile, food safety law firm Neblett, Beard & Arsenault of Alexandria, La., is investigating claims on behalf of E. coli victims who believe their illnesses are part of this multistate outbreak. According to Richard J. Arsenault, founding partner at Neblett, Beard & Arsenault, most of the victims of the illnesses are college students in those three states.   CSPI urges Senate action   The Center for Science in the Public Interest is using the outbreak as an opportunity to encourage the U.S. Senate to to bring the food safety bill to the floor.   CSPI hopes the bill will address several areas in which the U.S. food safety system is lacking. For example, Freshway is conducting the recall on a voluntary basis because the FDA lacks the ability to order a recall. The organization supports giving the FDA mandatory recall authority.   From CSPI:
    While consumers wait for Congress to pass food safety legislation, the plants that process and bag lettuce and the farms that grow it are operating under an industry honor system which clearly failed in this case. The FDA can't tell us when it last had inspectors in the plant where this lettuce was processed. Congress urgently needs to give the FDA the resources and authority from the farm forward, transforming it from a reactive agency to an agency focused on preventing contamination.
Produce Safety Project report recommends improvements   The Produce Safety Project is another organization urging reforms to the U.S. food safety system and has just released a report recommending improvements to the U.S. system based on steps taken by select European Union (EU) countries.   Authored by Michael Batz, head of Food Safety Programs, Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr., director at the Institute, the report, "Building the Science Foundation of a Modern Food Safety System," looks at European countries with strong food safety systems.   A key recommendation of the report is the annual publication of a unified cross-agency report on tracking foodborne pathogens in humans, animals, food and feed to be produced by the CDC, FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The annual analyses would summarize surveillance data on human foodborne illnesses — including outbreaks and sporadic cases — and on pathogen contamination in domestic and imported animals, food and feed.   "A national annual report on food safety will actually tell us if we are making progress or not in reducing the burden of foodborne illness," says Jim O'Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project. "It is a yardstick we don't have now."   The analysis would also present trends and provide the evidence basis for measuring food safety progress and include routinely updated national estimates of the incidence of foodborne illness due to major pathogens.   Within the existing systems in the United States the report outlines a number of specific steps to improve data collection and research, some of which include:
  • Revamping farm-to-table surveillance of domestic and imported food by developing a national surveillance plan and expanding collection of data on contamination of foods
  • Increasing capacity for integrated food safety analysis by developing cross-agency strategies for priority setting and attributing the burden of specific foods to overall foodborne illness
  • Better coordination of food safety research by publishing annually updated lists of prioritized research needs and increasing the role of regulators in research program priorities
  • Ensuring transparency and public participation
  • Improving effectiveness of trace-back and trace-forward data for outbreak response by expanding traceability requirements along food chain
  • Standardizing record-keeping and creating incentives or requirements for electronic information tracking will further help gather this data
The Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, seeks the establishment by the FDA of mandatory and enforceable safety standards for domestic and imported fresh produce, from farm to fork.  Copies of the report are available at the project's website.

Topics: Food Safety , Health & Nutrition , Operations Management

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