On Nov. 10, Joe Stratta of Texas ate a Caesar salad at a Beef O’Brady’s in Crestview, Florida. Four days later, he was stricken with a severe intestinal infection that hospitalized him for five days with acute kidney failure.
The culprit was a virulent strain of intestinal bacteria — E. coli O157:H7.
But it wasn’t until Nov. 20 that federal authorities, after noticing a pattern of similar illnesses and investigating, concluded the victims likely all were infected from tainted romaine lettuce and warned people not to eat it. The outbreak has now sickened 43 people in a dozen states and sent 16 to hospitals and has since been linked to romaine lettuce from six counties on California’s Central Coast.
While federal authorities continue trying to determine the source of the contamination, food-safety advocates, including Stratta’s lawyer, are suggesting Congress revive a program that screened produce in stores for pathogens but was eliminated in a 2012 budget cut after industry criticism.
“If it came back it would be such a good thing for food safety,” Jory Lange, a Houston lawyer representing Stratta who specializes in food safety cases, said of the USDA’s Microbiological Data Program. “It’s one of the cheapest, most effective interventions. It’s a way of finding problems before people get sick.”
The latest outbreak is the third involving lettuce-borne E. coli in the past year, and has certainly gotten the attention of an agriculture industry eager to find better ways of preventing contaminated produce from reaching consumers. But industry advocates aren’t convinced the scuttled program is the answer.
“There isn’t anyone anywhere who wants to make anyone ill,” said Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science and technology for Western Growers. The group represents family produce farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the industry who believes that what we have is sufficient.”
But Giclas, who was among industry advocates who had criticized the program, said that “it seemed repetitive and redundant and costly at the time.”
“I don’t see a real reason to bring it back,” Giclas said.
The Microbiological Data Program was a national food-borne pathogen monitoring effort run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2001 to 2012 with a $4.5 million annual budget. The program tested some 15,000 annual samples of produce in grocery stores, including lettuce, spinach, sprouts, tomatoes, cantaloupe and cilantro for a range of pathogens, including Salmonella, Listeria, Shigella and E. coli.
The benefit, advocates like Lange say, is that if the sampling detects a dangerous pathogen, “you can quickly do a recall before anybody even eats that lettuce.”
Without the program, advocates argue, that tainted produce can end up on thousands of dinner plates. And once people begin falling ill, the government must undertake a laborious and time-consuming process to determine a likely source of the infections and trace it back from retailers through distributors to growers, testing for genetic matches to the germs that struck the sick.
The process doesn’t even begin until several people develop the same illness. Local, state and federal public health officials share that information with the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees safety for most foods, or the USDA which regulates meats.
Those agencies then interview the sick to find out what they ate over the last week or so. If they report common food items known to carry those pathogens, the agencies gather receipts or packages and begin tracing them back through the supply chain looking for matching germs.
Because it takes three to 10 days for symptoms of E. coli infection to develop, the contamination can spread quickly and sicken dozens before authorities can determine a likely source and warn the public. Recalls don’t typically begin until officials can narrow the source to a particular producer.
E. coli, found in feces, is a frustrating pathogen to control. Just 20 organisms of the harmful strain can be enough to cause lethal illness. More than 2,100 a year are hospitalized and 20 die from foodborne E. coli, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After a massive 2006 outbreak linked to a fresh spinach farm on the Central Coast that sickened 205 people, three of whom died, growers developed the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, a set of food safety practices implemented on farms throughout the state. Participating growers are subject to mandatory government audits.
The FDA also does some limited sampling for E. coli.
But the Microbiological Data Program wasn’t popular with the produce industry, which felt that it was raising unnecessary alarm by reporting detection of harmful bacteria to the FDA and spurring recalls where no illness occurred.
In a 2011 memo to then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee complained about “unnecessary recalls” and asked if the screening program’s funding would be “better utilized elsewhere.” Over the previous two years, the program’s findings had triggered at least 19 produce recalls, according to the Food and Drug Administration. By December 2012, the funding and program were gone.
Trevor Suslow, vice president of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association, an agricultural trade group, said producers would have preferred a program that helped them keep contaminated food from being sent to retailers. The way the screening program was implemented, he said, caused “mass disruption and confusion in the marketplace and erosion of confidence among consumers.”
“I don’t think anyone would encourage a restart of the MDP program, certainly not as it was conducted then,” Suslow said. “How can we do it in an improved way, and allow better participation is just an ongoing strategic conversation that needs to happen between government agencies and industry.”
But after repeated outbreaks, food safety advocates say it wouldn’t hurt to see a more robust food testing regime. Before the latest outbreak, an E. coli linked to tainted romaine grown in Yuma, Arizona, sickened 210 people in 36 states, five of whom died, from April to June. Before that, E. coli-tainted romaine lettuce and other leafy green vegetables likely from Arizona, California and Mexico sickened 25 people in 15 states from November 2017 through January, one of whom died.
Now, food safety experts like Thomas Gremillion, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, think it’s time to take another look at screening produce before it gets to consumers.
“I think testing samples of fresh produce,” he said, “particularly products like romaine that have recently caused illness outbreaks, makes a lot of sense.”
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