Americans have faced more food recalls in 2018 than in the last ten years. What are federal agents doing about it?

Zee Krstic
November 26, 2018

Americans are now avoiding salad like the plague after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned the entire country to stay away from romaine lettuce last week. While some joked that caesar salad isn't a Thanksgiving mainstay anyway, others are wondering what's causing so many recalls lately.

Currently, the CDC says 32 people from 11 states in the Northeast, the Midwest, and California have fallen ill due to tainted romaine lettuce. The lettuce is contaminated with a strain of E. coli that has afflicted some with a rare form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome. It's the third time this year that federal safety agencies have asked Americans to stop eating romaine lettuce, but it is also the 21st food safety warning that federal agencies have had to issue this year, making 2018 a record year for mass recalls and foodborne illnesses.

The CDC, in particular, have launched more investigations into widespread foodborne illnesses in 2018 than any other year in the last decade, according to this report by CNN. When asked by the press, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner overseeing the Food and Drug Administration, says that it isn't so much that food sources are becoming less safe, but that the CDC has "better technology than ever before" to trace which foodborne bacteria has caused outbreaks of illness across the country.

Gottlieb said that genomic sequences have enabled federal investigators to trace pathogens back to specific foods and then onto specific producers. Currently, however, the CDC has not officially named a specific region or romaine producer in this latest outbreak—leading to a blanket ban for any romaine lettuce in all 50 states.

Worried about E. coli? Read on:

Over the holiday weekend, Gottlieb tweeted that federal investigators are working on a lead in California, where end-of-season harvests were distributed during the time period of the outbreak.

 

Gottlieb says the FDA is working with growers and distributors on labeling produce so that consumers know what is safe to eat—and that romaine currently being stocked in stores is not affected.

“The strain that caused [an outbreak last year] is very similar to the one that’s causing this outbreak and the timing is exactly the same. So it’s likely associated with end-of-season harvests in California, where most of the romaine that is currently on the market is from,” Gottlieb told NBC News. “I think we are going to be in a position to isolate the region soon. There is some lettuce coming in from Mexico but most of what’s on the market is the result of end-of-the-season harvesting coming out of California.”

A similar E. coli outbreak killed five and sickened more than 200 individuals over the summer—and new lawsuits allege that agencies like the FDA weren't doing sufficient work to keep Americans safe. Industry insiders and retail experts alike criticized federal investigators for taking five months to discover the true source of the previous outbreak—an irrigation canal contaminated by a nearby cattle field.

whitemay/Getty Images

It's still unclear as to why this strain of E. coli has affected romaine lettuce, and both the CDC and FDA says agents are investigating.

Lettuce growers in Yuma, Arizona, have taken extra steps to prevent yet another outbreak of foodborne illness this year: farmers are washing their lettuce with chlorine-treated water, and are considering buying out any nearby cattle lots to protect crops from cross contamination.

But with California growers facing the potential of owning up to another widespread outbreak, it seems that a new system for keeping produce safe may be needed. Walmart and Sam's Club are among the first major retailers to turn to blockchain technology in order to contain foodborne illness, a process where farmers, growers, and exporters use technology to track each piece of produce from when it's harvested to when it reaches shelves.

While the true cause of this outbreak remains to be seen, asking farmers and producers to track their products could become standard practice in a industry where sickness is at an all-time high.