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An open letter is urging the federal agency to take specific steps in the next six months.

Zee Krstic
May 31, 2018

We all watched in horror over the last several weeks as one of our favorite leafy greens sparked the worst E. coli outbreak the United States has seen in over a decade. But the FDA resorted to issuing a blanket call for everyone to stop eating any romaine, as they couldn't pinpoint the source of the contamination beyond a large growing region in Arizona.

In total, almost 175 people in 32 different states fell victim to E. coli poisoning after eating contaminated romaine lettuce—more than 20 contracted the scary and rare form of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, and one person died in California. But the Food and Drug Administration was (and still is) unable to pinpoint exactly where the E. coli outbreak started, which is why consumer lobbyists have challenged the federal agency to take steps to make sure this never happens again.

Nearly ten consumer-oriented organizations joined forces to ask the FDA to rehaul their safeguards against tainted food. Among them are the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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The letter asks the FDA to institute rules that were passed into law back in 2011 within the FDA's Food Safety and Modernization Act, which stipulated that the agency create rules for keeping tabs on risky foods known to cause illnesses in order to efficiently trace the source of an outbreak when it occurs. And, for good measure, the team of representatives asked for the FDA to coordinate with farmers and producers across the nation to create "best practices to enhance traceability."

“Current technology makes it possible for retailers to track and trace products with extraordinary speed and accuracy," the letter, dated May 24, 2018, reads. "Given these advances, it is no longer acceptable that the FDA has no means to swiftly determine where a bag of lettuce was grown or packaged.”

During the most recent E. coli outbreak, more than a few experts publicly criticized the FDA for their inability to stop the outbreak from spreading—and the consumer groups behind the open call for reform also picked up on the fact that the FDA's Food Safety and Modernization Act didn't aid investigators in stopping the outbreak.

Getty: Justin Sullivan / Staff

“The repeated outbreaks linked to leafy greens since passage of FSMA leave no doubt that these products belong in the ‘high risk’ category. The FDA should act swiftly to improve the traceability of these foods and protect consumers,” the letter says.

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The team behind the letter, which highlights the fact that the romaine lettuce-fueled E. coli outbreak still remains unsolved upwards of seven weeks after the first reported case, also cited an earlier outbreak of E. coli linked to lettuce from 2017 that investigators were unable to determine the source of.

It's not the first time that the FDA has faced harsh public criticism in the last year—the Department of Health and Human Services released early reports from an audit into the FDA's effectiveness in protecting the American people last December. Their findings show that the FDA is just too slow in response to food recalls and outbreaks to keep the public safe.

While the FDA has yet to officially respond to the public challenge, a new group made up of farmers and industry professionals known as the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force plans to work with the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control on a "collaborative basis," according to an official release from the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. We'll update this story when and if the FDA responds.

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