UNITED STATES - If it ends with the FDA and the CDC, it has to start there. This is what I have been hearing in droves when I ask suppliers in our industry where we fix the faulty system put in place to address foodborne illness, its impact on consumer perception, and its financial repercussions and aftermath. Our hearts go out to all those affected, and this article does not minimize those horrible experiences.
As an advocate for the produce industry, I wanted to see where the challenges and hindrances lie in the policies and procedures enacted by the CDC and FDA to address the E. coli outbreak and in the subsequent announcement advising consumers, restaurants, and retailers not to eat, serve, or sell any romaine lettuce as it investigates.
In response to the recent industry dialogue after the November 20th advisory that resulted in a purge of the category, industry sources concerned about government repercussions who chose to remain nameless, joined me to open up a dialogue on the issue.
“Best by dates on romaine products are around 16+/- days. Why are we looking for lettuce that's so old? Why did romaine that was consumed at the end of September/early October account for the purge of the category that followed the FDA and CDC’s announcement on November 20th?” as one source told me. “We need to put the right people in the room to make better decisions. Are the right people anywhere near the room? The apparent approach to solve things is by purging. This behavior is very expensive and may become habit-forming. Is purging really the way to reduce government liability? If so, the system is broken.”
At the end of the day, it appears that there are more questions than answers. Speaking with sources from the industry, it would be correct to assume that the early October product harvested at the end of September and end of October would have past its shelf-life and would not even have been a factor. So, should the announcement have been more specific: Consumers, purge your refrigerators, not your businesses.
Sources also tell me that a few lettuce processors knew in advance when the ban was going to be lifted. They started harvesting on the Saturday prior to the announcement that romaine was okay to harvest on Monday, three days before.
“It feels like the current process is a blame game,” another source adds. “Who can get out of the liability the fastest? I think it is time we start concentrating more on blockchain as a tool to streamline the process and bring transparency.”
One industry friend called the tact “A rush to judgment,” resulting in chaos. As they shared, the financial implications are judged by a very weak system put in place. Growers already have to, and mind you want to, jump through so many food safety hoops that protect the health of their own families, consumers at large, and retailers. I don’t know one company that sits on their laurels when it comes to food safety. But the problem is that we all speak the same language as an industry for the most part, but the consumer is bombarded with not only misinformation, but a lack of information at all.
Yes, safety first, always—but why can’t produce industry knowledge of shelf-life, harvesting transitions, and soil help improve the way we breach info to the public?
Where do we balance the “Consumers want safe food, but they want it affordable,” concept? How do we keep produce accessible to all and perfect and imperfect system? Is there a lack in communication with the FDA and CDC and suppliers that could account for this gap? United Fresh shared with us in a recent article how the industry gains information and why potential conflicts of interest limit our ability to help tighten the system. When an announcement is to be made public, depending on how quickly the agencies can work, associations may get a heads up 30 minutes to an hour beforehand, adding that conflict of interest prohibits involving the industry in the federal investigation.
We will continue digging into these questions if, for nothing else, the questions pave a road and create a dialogue for answers.