An outrageous statement today from Western Growers flies in the face of yesterday’s remarkably responsible move by the produce industry to call for an immediate, voluntary, nationwide recall of all romaine lettuce until the source of contamination fueling a new international E. coli outbreak is determined.
Western Growers also appears to be talking out of both sides of its mouth because it was one of the signatories on yesterday’s open letter to the public. The head of the Irvine, CA, group has a very different message today.
“… it is important to acknowledge that a number of regions in current production were not harvesting or shipping romaine at the onset of the outbreak and, consequently, could not be the source of the specific E. coli strain identified in the illnesses. In light of this evidence, we urge the government’s health agencies to work with stakeholders to quickly narrow the scope of the investigation, and to remove these regions from the comprehensive advisory as soon as the safety of the public can be ensured,” Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, said today in a news release.
The content and tone of Nassif’s statement read like a reprint of the deadly head-in-the-sand, profit-mongering playbook the romaine industry used earlier this year during an E. coli outbreak that ultimately sickened at least 210 people, killing five.
In April, when government officials first reported the outbreak that was associated with romaine grown in the Yuma, AZ, area, virtually everyone in the leafy greens and produce industry said there was no ongoing threat because harvest in the region had wrapped up. That turned out to not be true. The area was shipping through the end of April, though it was well past its peak at the point. Growers and processors kept shipping and people kept getting sick.
Had the produce industry done in the spring what it called for yesterday and stopped the flow of romaine to consumers, retailers and restaurants, there would no doubt have been fewer people infected.
But the Western Growers organization — which was founded in 1926 and represents growers in Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico — did not put people before pennies this past spring. Neither did other produce and leafy greens groups. They all engaged in the blame game, saying everyone from Mother Nature to consumers had a hand in the outbreak.
The industry’s call to action yesterday can’t reverse the symptoms of the patients already infected in the new outbreak, but it almost certainly will help prevent additional illnesses.
Western Growers doesn’t seem much interested in containing the outbreak, though, despite Nassif’s stale homage to this fall’s victims: “Our hearts go out to individuals and families impacted by the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine …”
The group, self-described as producing “half the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, including half of America’s fresh organic produce,” also pointed a bony finger at government today.
“… we urge the government’s health agencies to work with stakeholders to quickly narrow the scope of the investigation, and to remove these regions from the comprehensive advisory as soon as the safety of the public can be ensured…” the Western Growers news release says.
If it weren’t tragic, it would be laughable.
One of, if not the biggest, difficulties the FDA and CDC faced during the outbreak this spring was the industry’s inability to provide complete and consistent shipping and receiving records. Asking government agencies to “work with stakeholders quickly” now so unaffected companies can get back to making money is insulting to civil servants and taxpayers.
Tracking romaine through the farm-to-fork supply chain was virtually impossible earlier this year, and it still is. There isn’t uniformity in shipping and receiving documentation. Many records are still being written by hand on paper forms and in spiral notebooks. The records that are available in electronic formats aren’t easily searchable and most often don’t reflect the whole supply chain. Outbreak investigators spent thousands of hours this spring trying to figure out what romaine went where. When the CDC declared the outbreak over, it was still unknown who grew, processed and distributed the implicated romaine.
What’s the gov’mint sayin?
I checked in with the folks at the Food and Drug Administration this afternoon about the status of their traceback investigation. I was not surprised to get a response almost immediately. Some people might think government employees aren’t working less than 24 hours before their Thanksgiving dinners, but they are.
The FDA’s staff declined to comment specifically on the statement from Western Growers. I respect that. There’s no need or time for a we-said, they-said exchange in situations such as this. An agency spokesman was, however, able to provide insight into the investigation as it currently stands.
“We are encouraged to see that several romaine growers and manufacturers have begun to voluntarily withdraw their romaine products from the market. Together, we can help reduce the risk of foodborne illness while we continue work to identify the source and we thank our industry partners for supporting our warning for consumers to not eat romaine lettuce at this time and will continue to work with them on the current E. coli investigation, and on ways to improve traceability and the safety of leafy greens. We also welcome the support from the California and Arizona Leafy Green Marketing Agreements on our advice to voluntarily withdraw potentially contaminated romaine from the market,” FDA press officer Peter Cassell told Food Safety News.
“Our investigation is ongoing and we are working closely with our federal partners to narrow the scope of this outbreak and traceback specific locations where the implicated romaine is coming from and will provide updates as soon as we learn more. We recognize that this is a broad warning, but some lettuce packaging is labeled in a way that doesn’t make it clear where the product was grown. Our ultimate goal is the protection of the consumer. And entering into a holiday weekend that is very food-centric, we felt this advice was important in preventing additional illnesses.”
For the record — Western Growers’ full statement
IRVINE, Calif., (November 21, 2018) — In response to the recent food safety alert issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration linking an outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 to romaine lettuce, Western Growers President & CEO Tom Nassif issued the following statement:
“Our hearts go out to individuals and families impacted by the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine, and our romaine growers and handlers are cooperating fully with federal and state health agencies to identify the source of the contamination. California and Arizona growers place the safety of their produce above all else, and growers and handlers of romaine lettuce in these two states are governed by the most stringent food safety requirements anywhere in the country.
“In the meantime, it is important to acknowledge that a number of regions in current production were not harvesting or shipping romaine at the onset of the outbreak and, consequently, could not be the source of the specific E. coli strain identified in the illnesses. In light of this evidence, we urge the government’s health agencies to work with stakeholders to quickly narrow the scope of the investigation, and to remove these regions from the comprehensive advisory as soon as the safety of the public can be ensured.”
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