• The Acheson Group

FDA, CDC Keep Consumers Guessing in E. coli Outbreak

Updated: Nov 22, 2018


FDA, CDC Keep Consumers Guessing in E. coli Outbreak

Many of our clients had their recent holiday festivities interrupted by the “E. coli in Romaine” challenges that emerged at the end of December and rolled right through into January. There was one constant set of questions I was being asked – “Do you know what is going on?” and “Where can we learn what FDA and CDC are doing?”  The only answer I could give was – “Nobody seems to know!”


We went into a dark period of communication about this issue – no one from the government was saying anything about what was going on after the Canadians announced, “Do not eat romaine.”  This created great concern when information emerged that the same strain was linked to illness in the US.


In most cases, when you hear of a foodborne illness outbreak, you can check FDA’s “Recalls, Outbreaks & Emergencies” webpage to learn what commodity is at risk and the facilities implicated to date. If there’s nothing there, you can check CDC’s Foodborne Outbreaks page. But if you were seeking any information on the reports of an E. coli outbreak in Canada linked to romaine lettuce in early December which, by all accounts, was impacting some U.S. states as well, you wouldn’t have found anything on U.S. government websites.

It wasn’t until December 28, 2017, that CDC posted its first statement on the outbreak. But even while noting that the Public Health Agency of Canada had identified romaine lettuce as the likely source of the outbreak in Canada, CDC stated, “Because we have not identified a source of the infections, CDC is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food. This investigation is ongoing, and more information will be released as it becomes available.”


Retailers and food service companies were left scrambling – What should they do? Stop selling romaine? Stop all leafy greens?  The lack of communication was a challenge as the food industry was trying to do the right thing.


So, of course, someone has to fill the vacuum, and the first (and only) U.S. advisory came from the Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports) on January 3: “Food safety experts at Consumer Reports are advising that consumers stop eating romaine lettuce until the cause of the outbreak is identified and that product is removed from store shelves.” Neither FDA nor CDC acknowledged the publication – neither confirming nor denying its accuracy.  


But the news media was all over this pronouncement from Consumer Reports which appeared to be speaking on behalf of the U.S. government. Again, food companies were scrambling – wanting to do the right thing, while not unnecessarily pulling a lot of good food off the shelves.


Nothing could be found from FDA until January 10, 2018, when it stated, “Whole genome sequencing showed that the U.S. and Canadian E. coli O157:H7 strains are closely related, suggesting a common source of illness.” But even while also adding that Canadian health officials had identified romaine lettuce, FDA was unwilling to commit to anything more than “CDC believes that this outbreak is likely linked to leafy greens” with no specific type identified.


So, we have to wonder: If the known illnesses in the U.S. began in late November, as FDA does say in its January statement, why did the agency not issue any information until January – when the “suspect leafy greens linked to this outbreak are likely no longer in the food supply”? Why didn’t someone from FDA or CDC address this issue and, at the least, communicate to the public: “Here is what we know; here is what we don’t know; and here is what we are doing.”


I can understand some of the recall and advisory reticence: I was FDA Associate Commissioner of Foods during the 2008 Salmonella outbreak in which tomatoes were implicated. A definite source was never identified (though peppers were eventually implicated as a major source), but with everything at the time pointing toward tomatoes, FDA advised consumers in two states to avoid certain tomatoes. But the impact of the outbreak went national with significant economic loss to the tomato industry.


So, FDA certainly learned a lesson from that. However, the total lack of communication from the U.S. government on the E. coli outbreak, even as Canada was regularly issuing updates, is not so understandable. It wasn’t until a week after Canada had advised consumers of many of its provinces “to consider consuming other types of lettuce, instead of romaine lettuce, until more is known about the outbreak and the cause of contamination” (and nearly three weeks after its first notification), that CDC issued a statement that the U.S. multistate outbreak of E. coli “making people sick in both countries is closely related genetically.” And another two weeks before FDA issued its statement.


So, I see it as quite a communications mess by FDA and CDC. U.S. consumers knew that people were getting sick just across the border in Canada; they were hearing “rumors” that the Romaine may also be in the U.S. Then Consumer Reports jumped in and scared lots of consumers, and the media got all over that. But no one in authority was providing any information. Was it safe to eat Romaine? Should the lettuce in my refrigerator be tossed? Should I purchase a different lettuce variety or just not eat lettuce right now? And no one was telling them anything.


We all know that FDA is underserved in resources, but it may be beneficial for the Agency to take another look at its priorities, and ensure it is including timely and comprehensive communication in its mission to safeguard consumer health - even if they don’t know exactly what is going on. Such communications, if done well, will enhance the Agency’s reputation rather than tarnish it as happed over the recent holiday season.


About The Acheson Group (TAG)

Led by Former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods Dr. David Acheson, TAG is a food safety consulting group that provides guidance and expertise worldwide for companies throughout the food supply chain. With in-depth industry knowledge combined with real-world experience, TAG's team of food safety experts help companies more effectively mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies, and ensure regulatory and standards compliance. www.AchesonGroup.com

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