In the wake of numerous leafy green-related E. coli outbreaks over the past two years, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its 2020 plan to increase food safety and tackle outbreaks more effectively. Announced in a Voices Blog entry from the FDA on March 5, 2020, the plan outlines steps to prevent E. coli outbreaks by detecting and preventing bacterial contamination in leafy greens.
The FDA’s commissioner, Stephen M. Hahn and deputy commissioner, Frank Yiannas, joined forces to create a plan that spells out actions the agency plans to take this year in the areas of prevention, response and addressing knowledge gaps.
They note obvious environmental problems with leafy greens production, with a key focus on romaine lettuce, partly because of five E. coli O157: H7 outbreaks traced to the vegetable from 2017 through 2019.
“We believe one foodborne illness outbreak is one too many,” Hahn said in a blog post about the announcement. “The FDA is committed to doing more.”
In the prevention section, the plan highlights steps to implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule. The FSMA will establish science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce. In the leafy greens sector specifically, the plan will provide education and technical assistance to industry players and stakeholders.
Many of the proposed efforts include strengthening measures already in development, such as making it easier to trace the source of contaminated greens quickly, ramping up inspections of farms, testing the water used to irrigate greens and improving collaboration with growers, retailers and others in the leafy greens industry.
The plan also includes a few new goals, such as developing a protocol that chemical companies can use to produce antimicrobial products for treating irrigation water and streamlining information on consumer purchases to improve the speed and accuracy of traceback investigations.
Past E. coli outbreaks have had a vast impact on the sale of leafy greens, specifically romaine lettuce. During the week of April 14, 2020 (the week an E. coli outbreak was announced), romaine dollar sales fell 20 percent, which pushed total lettuce performance down by double digits. Sales continued to dip the following week, and the effects migrated into prepared foods as well.
With five E. coli outbreaks documented in 2019, the FDA’s 2020 action plan hopes to prevent future outbreaks and find better ways to remedy them when they occur.