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Romaine warning prompts FDA to push new labeling requirements

TAGS: Regulatory
GomezDavid/iStock/Getty Images Plus romaine_lettuce_GettyImages-992204534
Close-up of organic Romaine lettuce at outdoor farmer's market.
FDA has commitments from the romaine lettuce industry that labelling will continue into the future and become the standard for romaine products.

The Food and Drug Administration Nov. 27 updated its consumer advisory regarding romaine lettuce and said the sales and shipping of romaine harvested from growing areas outside of the Central Coast region of California can resume, but the lettuce must be labeled with location and date of harvest.

As of Nov. 30, the FDA continued to investigate, along with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses associated with eating romaine lettuce in the U.S. As of Nov. 26, the outbreak had infected and sickened 43 in 12 states, with the last illness reported Oct. 31. Also, 22 people in Canada become ill from the outbreak.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was updated Nov. 28 to correct typos.)

“Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the FDA continued to investigate the outbreak. Our investigation at this point suggests that romaine lettuce associated with the outbreak comes from areas of California that grow romaine lettuce over the summer months, and that the outbreak appears to be related to ‘end of season’ romaine lettuce harvested from these areas. The involved areas include the Central Coast growing regions of central and northern California,” the agency said in a Nov. 26 statement.

In the same statement, the FDA said that a “clean break” in the romaine supply in the U.S. was needed to “purge the market of potentially contaminated romaine lettuce related to the current outbreak. This appears to have been accomplished through the market withdrawal request of Nov. 20, 2018.”

As November ended, romaine harvest in the U.S. shifts to the winter growing regions such as the California desert of the Imperial Valley, the Arizona desert in and around Yuma, and Florida.

FDA said it participated in discussions with the major romaine producers and distributors and with major trade associations representing the produce industry regarding product labeling and dating to assure consumers that any romaine entering the market as of late November wasn’t associated with the current outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.

“The labeling will identify the origin of the romaine based on harvest region, along with the date of harvest. This can improve the ability of the FDA to provide more targeted information to consumers in the event of a future outbreak of illness. The FDA also has commitments from the romaine lettuce industry that such labeling will continue into the future and become the standard for their products,” the agency said.  

Florida-grown romaine lettuce wasn’t linked to the outbreak and was cleared as of Nov. 27 to enter the market, according to FDA, which came as good news to growers.

“FFVA remains concerned about any illnesses caused by fresh produce. However, we do welcome the FDA’s announcement and we support its recommendation for voluntary labeling,” said Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association President Mike Joyner in a Nov. 27 statement. “Over the past week, we have worked cooperatively with leaders and the industry to urge a solution that would allow Florida growers to harvest and ship their romaine lettuce. In the meantime, we continue to urge the FDA and CDC to conclude their traceback investigation swiftly.”

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