Emails show FDA worry after romaine outbreaks

NEW YORK — 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 a massive 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, including testing of romaine. The agency said new regulations that include farm inspections and sanitary 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 a member.

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.

This month, the FDA delayed a regulation requiring produce growers to test water for E. coli — which is how the leafy greens industry has been monitoring its water. The presence of E. coli doesn’t necessarily make people sick, but can signal potentially harmful strains. The agency said it needs more time to consider whether it’s the most practical option.

“That’s essentially just stepping back and asking industry to take responsibility for public safety,” said Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Gorny’s emails came during the fall outbreak tied to California growing regions. In a message in late November, he noted additional, recent illnesses with a strain similar to the earlier spring outbreak.

The FDA said it never tied those additional illnesses to a food. But at the time, Gorny called it a “near miss” that shows the problem wasn’t fixed.

Sorscher said the lack of a solution is concerning, but lettuce is still a healthy food and the “odds are very good that you won’t get sick.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie are serving sit-down customers in their Mirror diner to protest health restrictions that they say are unfair to restaurants and other small businesses. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Central Alberta restaurant owner defies health restrictions by serving diners

Whistle Stop Cafe owner says pandemic restrictions unfair to restaurants and small businesses

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in her daily update on Monday that 362 new COVID cases have been identified and 7,200 tests done in the last 24 hours. (File photo)
COVID-19: UK variant may have entered broader community says Alberta health minister

25 cases of two variants identified in Alberta and one not linked to travel

An ice sculpture of a bee with a timely message was created near the Ross Street Patio. It’s party of a Downtown Business Association initiative to draw more people downtown to support local businesses. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Ice sculptures created to draw more people to downtown Red Deer

Three sculptures can be seem at various venues

Lab and x-ray technologist Rebecca Walter demonstrates a new digital radiographic X-ray unit funded by an $850,000 donation. The new unit is at the Sylvan Lake Advanced Ambulatory Care Service.
Photo contributed
New Sylvan Lake X-ray unit up and running

Radiographic x-ray unit made possible by $850,000 donation from Sylvan Lake couple

(Black Press file photo)
Police seeking suspects in Bowden armed robbery

Man was beaten and robbed of his wallet

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Green Bay Packers' Adrian Amos pauses after losing the NFC championship NFL football game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. The Buccaneers defeated the Packers 31-26 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Aaron Rodgers’ ‘uncertain’ future hangs over Green Bay

Aaron Rodgers’ ‘uncertain’ future hangs over Green Bay

Toronto Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich calls the plays on the sideline against Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the first half of CFL action in Winnipeg on August 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Scott Milanovich steps down as Edmonton’s head coach to pursue opportunities in NFL

Scott Milanovich steps down as Edmonton’s head coach to pursue opportunities in NFL

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) goes under Indiana Pacers guards Malcolm Brogdon (7) and Jeremy Lamb (26) to shoot during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Michael Conroy
Brogdon scores 36 points to lead Pacers over Toronto Raptors

Brogdon scores 36 points to lead Pacers over Toronto Raptors

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2020, file photo, baseballs occupy a bucket after use during fielding practice during spring training baseball workouts for pitchers and catchers at Cleveland Indians camp in Avondale, Ariz. Major League Baseball is suspending all political contributions in the wake of last week's invasion of the U.S. Capitol by a mob loyal to President Donald Trump, joining a wave of major corporations rethinking their efforts to lobby Washington. “In light of the unprecedented events last week at the U.S. Capitol, MLB is suspending contributions from its Political Action Committee pending a review of our political contribution policy going forward,” the league said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Cactus League asks MLB to delay spring training due to COVID

Cactus League asks MLB to delay spring training due to COVID

Patrick Cantlay, right, bumps fists with Andrew Putman before teeing off on the first hole during the final round of The American Express golf tournament on the Pete Dye Stadium Course at PGA West Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in La Quinta, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Si Woo Kim holds off Cantlay to win The American Express

Si Woo Kim holds off Cantlay to win The American Express

Danielle Kang winds up to hit her tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Jessica Korda rallies to beat Kang in playoff at LPGA opener, Henderson ninth

Jessica Korda rallies to beat Kang in playoff at LPGA opener, Henderson ninth

COVID-19 scare prompts cancellation of Canada-U. S. soccer scrimmage in Florida

COVID-19 scare prompts cancellation of Canada-U. S. soccer scrimmage in Florida

Coach John Herdman prepares for practice with Bev Priestman, a member of his coaching staff, ahead of Sunday's soccer game against the United States in the final of the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship, in Houston on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson
Priestman includes six uncapped players in her first roster as Canada soccer coach

Priestman includes six uncapped players in her first roster as Canada soccer coach

Most Read