Emails show FDA worry with grow­ers af­ter ro­maine out­breaks

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY CANDICE CHOI As­so­ci­ated Press

Af­ter re­peated food poi­son­ing out­breaks tied to ro­maine let­tuce, a U.S. food safety of­fi­cial shared his con­cerns in an in­ter­nal email, say­ing the pro­duce in­dus­try’s wa­ter test­ing “failed in an epic and tragic way.”

How the in­dus­try tests wa­ter to grow leafy greens is “un­ac­cept­able” and needs to change, James Gorny, a senior ad­viser for pro­duce safety at the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, wrote to agency lead­ers.

The mes­sage last Novem­ber, ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press through a pub­lic records request, came days be­fore the agency warned peo­ple to avoid ro­maine ahead of Thanks­giv­ing. Just months ear­lier in April, another E. coli out­break linked to ro­maine had sick­ened more than 200 and killed five. That was later linked to an ir­ri­ga­tion canal near amas­sive cat­tle lot in Ari­zona; the fall out­break was linked to a wa­ter reser­voir in Cal­i­for­nia. In both cases, reg­u­la­tors never con­firmed how the wa­ter be­came con­tam­i­nated.

Though the FDA has pub­licly called on the leafy greens in­dus­try to step up safety, the emails of­fer a stark view of the agency’s long­stand­ing frustrations with con­tin­ued out­breaks. They also show how the agency lever­aged the cri­sis to pres­sure for vol­un­tary changes, even as it tries to fig­ure out its own wa­ter test­ing rules.

In a state­ment, the FDA said it has been work­ing with grow­ers and state agen­cies to im­prove safety since the out­breaks. The agency said new reg­u­la­tions that in­clude farm in­spec­tions and rules for work­ers also should help stem out­breaks.

In­dus­try groups said they’re ex­pand­ing ex­ist­ing safety prac­tices for their mem­bers. Join­ing the in­dus­try agree­ments is vol­un­tary, how­ever, and a farm linked to the fall out­break was not amem­ber.

Food poi­son­ing out­breaks tied to leafy greens have been an on­go­ing con­cern for health of­fi­cials. The fail­ure of in­dus­try mea­sures to stop out­breaks shows the lack of a clear so­lu­tion, and even reg­u­la­tors aren’t sure how to fix the prob­lem, said Ti­mothy Lyt­ton, a food safety ex­pert at Ge­or­gia State Univer­sity.

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