The FDA is launching a new, temporary testing program for the romaine lettuce from commercial coolers in the Yuma, AZ, growing region. Romaine from the area has been linked to several foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years.

Samples will be tested for Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) and Salmonella spp. as part of ongoing surveillance efforts following the spring 2018 multistate E. coli O157:H7 outbreak of foodborne illness. Since then there have been other outbreaks linked to romaine from the Yuma area and parts of California. Salmonella spp. also commonly causes foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States which have at times been linked to romaine lettuce consumption, according to a statement today from the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA plans to begin collecting samples from commercial coolers in February and intends to continue sampling through the end of the romaine harvest season in Yuma. The FDA testing program will focus on the commercial cooler and cold storage facilities where field heat is removed from harvested romaine and where the product is cold stored before processing and shipment, according to the agency announcement.

Focusing on these sites should enable the FDA to efficiently collect samples from multiple farms at centralized locations, following a similar model used during a testing program conducted in FY19. The agency plans to collect and test about 500 samples of romaine lettuce. Each sample will consist of 10 subsamples, and each subsample will be made up of at least 300 grams of romaine lettuce. The testing will include whole heads, hearts, or individual leaves. All samples will be collected prior to processing of the lettuce as well as prior to handling by workers at the cooling and cold storage facilities.

The FDA has contracted with an independent laboratory in Arizona near the collection sites to test the samples. Using this laboratory will help to greatly reduce the time between sample collection and the reporting of the results. The FDA expects to receive test results within 24 hours of the laboratory receiving the samples. Results will then be relayed to the firms. Companies may, but are not required to hold, sampled lots until test results are available. Holding products can help prevent potential recalls of contaminated lettuce.

During this sampling assignment, the FDA will take extra precautions to help ensure the safety of agency investigators and firm employees from COVID-19 infections. FDA investigators will pre-announce their visits to firms and will be outfitted with personal protective equipment (PPE) and otherwise equipped to carry out their work while adhering to state and local guidance as well as applicable CDC guidance.

“Helping to ensure the safety of leafy greens continues to be a priority of the FDA. This assignment adds to other work underway in collaboration with stakeholders in the Yuma agricultural region to implement actions identified in the Leafy Greens Action Plan, including a multi-year study to assess the environmental factors that impact the presence of foodborne pathogens in this region,” states the agency announcement. 

Consistent with the action plan, the agency will engage with the industry in conducting root cause analyses for any positive samples found during this assignment. Root cause analyses are important in that they seek to identify potential sources and routes of contamination, inform what preventive measures are needed, and help prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Last Oct. 7, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) imposed sampling and testing requirements on all Salinas Valley romaine shipments to Canada through the end of 2020.  Salinas Valley growers complained about the added cost, but largely complied with the sampling and testing requirements.

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