Lettuce Contamination Prompts Harder Look at Precut, Bagged Products

Bagged, precut lettuce may pose additional safety risks and challenges for regulators, the Washington Post reports. An ongoing E. coli outbreak connected to precut lettuce has sickened at least 23 people in four states:

Most processors of fresh-cut produce remove the outer leaves and core the heads of lettuce in the field, where cutting utensils can come into contact with soil and spread contamination from the dirt to the crop, [microbiologist Michael] Doyle said. In farming areas, especially in a region near cattle farms, it is not unusual to find E. coli in the soil. 

lettuceThe Food and Drug Administration says precut lettuce is no more or less risks than whole lettuce. Since a company name is not as evident as it would be with precut lettuce (usually sold in bags), whole lettuce is more difficult to track, meaning that investigators can more easily  identify cases – not that those cases are occurring more frequently, FDA says. 

But trace-back for precut lettuce presents its own set of challenges, Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the Post: "You're taking lettuce that could be grown in different areas and batching it together. So if you've got one infected field, you're mixing it with lettuce that would otherwise be uninfected, and now the whole batch is contaminated."

FDA is working on a new rule for produce safety that it expects to propose in December. “The proposed rule will be based on prevention-oriented public health principles and incorporate what we have learned,” FDA says.

In the past, FDA has relied on voluntary guidance in lieu of regulation. In July 2009, FDA issued draft guidance on reducing contamination of leafy greens, including bagged products. The guidance has yet to be finalized and, by definition, contains only nonbinding recommendations.

Smith DeWaal said food safety legislation pending in Congress would help FDA better ensure the safety of precut lettuce (and lots of other foods). A version of the bill has passed the House, while a similar version has been awaiting consideration on the Senate floor for six months.

Image by Flickr user stephen_bolen, used under a Creative Commons license.

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