Lettuce recall doesn't hide progress on food safety, experts say

The lettuce recall has many questioning the safety of US produce, but voluntary adherence to food safety standards has led to progress since the E. coli outbreak in 2007.

By , Staff writer

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    Freshway Foods in Sidney, Ohio, the company behind the recent romaine lettuce recall, is seen in this photo taken Friday. The company recalled lettuce sold in 23 states and the District of Columbia because of a possible link to an E. coli outbreak.
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The recall of romaine lettuce sold under the Freshway and Imperial Sysco names across the US points to the need for better food safety regulations and new legislation, but it is also focusing attention on America’s strong record.

An E. coli outbreak possibly linked to tainted lettuce has reportedly sickened 19 in Ohio, New York, and Michigan, with cases reported on three college campuses. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is focusing investigation on lettuce grown in Arizona, according to the food safety advocacy group Safe Tables our Priority.

The outbreak – and the resulting concern about what is and isn’t safe to eat – has some focusing on the progress made in food safety, rather than on fears.

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“When you consider the macro view – the amount of food we process from farms to stores to stomachs daily to over 300 million people – I am frankly amazed at the limited number of recalls and sickness,” says Greg Bonner, chair of the department of marketing and business law at the Villanova School of Business. “That is the reason why these outbreaks get so much attention when they do happen,” he says.

A lot of progress has been achieved since the last reports of salmonella and E coli in 2007, say other experts. Farm groups, agricultural collectives, transportation firms, and processing plants have implemented voluntary regulations on cleanliness.

More progress could be on the way. A House bill passed in July calls on food processors to register with the government periodically, implement food safety plans, meet FDA performance standards, and verify that the food they import complies with US law. Known as the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a Senate version sponsored by Senators Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, and Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, was passed unanimously by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in November. The bill was scheduled to head to the floor of the Senate this summer, but has been delayed by health-care reform and now financial reform.

The bill “is just the nudge that is needed,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, Food and Safety Director for the Center For Science in the Public Interest. "It gives [the] FDA needed new authorities to manage food safety from farm to table, through improved standards and more frequent inspections,” she says.

Under the current system, food manufacturing facilities might only receive visits from an FDA inspector once every five or 10 years. The House and Senate bills also give the FDA authority to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated foods.

Another notch of progress came in 2007 when California farmers created the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA). Over 100 produce handlers, representing approximately 99 percent of the volume of California leafy greens, are LGMA members. LGMA monitors compliance with accepted food safety practices through mandatory government audits. Because of the program, California leafy greens are now grown under a unique system that has become a model for growers in other states.

“There is now a program underway based on the California model to create a national leafy green association,” says Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “As in California, this will help on two fronts. One is to insure that farmers and processors adhere to the standards for leafy green crops,” says Mr. Kranz. The other is focused on research and “gathering new information to hone the regulations and make them as effective as they can be.”

This week’s recall also sends an important message that no matter how many new regulations mandating inspections come out, no system can achieve 100 percent perfection, food safety experts say.

“No system can exhaustively inspect the food chain from farm to dinner table,” says Manual Cunha Jr., President of the Nisei Farmers League. “Everyone seems to think these contaminants occurred in the field because of animals or unclean farm workers,” he says. “No one seems to want to look at conveyor belts and check out counters in grocery stores, which handle meat and chicken as well as vegetables.”

Mr. Cunha points out that farm fields can't be fenced in solidly enough to keep out mice or birds, and the alternative – using greenhouses for everything – would be prohibitively expensive.

Some would tell consumers that simply switching to local foods is the solution to quality and safety concerns. But that isn’t enough, experts say. “Consumer confidence in food safety is falling, but consumer diligence with food safety practice is declining as well,” says Nancy Childs, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. “Turning to local food as a solution is to not understand the sources of contamination and the need to cleanse all food.”

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