By Hilary Thesmar, PhD, RD, CFS, Chief Food and Product Safety Officer and Senior Vice President Food Safety, Food Marketing InstituteFood Safety Romaine Lettuce

Sometimes, even when companies have strong food safety programs, a robust food safety culture and well-developed supplier verification programs, unpredictable events that are disruptive and costly still happen. This year was filled with such events -- some of them were explainable, others incomprehensible.

Two words sum up food safety in 2018: Romaine Lettuce. Say those words in front of your peers in the food industry and you will be met with heads in hands, eyes rolling, heads shaking and deep sighs. You might even end the conversation before it has a chance to start.

The romaine lettuce outbreak as has spanned months, cost the industry millions and was a painful experience that no one wishes to re-enact. One reason the outbreak was so challenging was that there was no associated recall of romaine lettuce. Both the FDA and CDC issued public health alerts advising retailers and restaurants to not sell chopped romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region without issuing a recall for the lettuce. Typically, when there are illnesses associated with products, a rapid response is necessary to identify the source and respond by removing implicated products from store shelves and alerting consumers. However, in circumstances when the implicated product cannot be identified and the government issues Public Health Alerts in the absence of specific product recalls, retailers are forced to make decisions – usually erring on the side of caution and opting to remove all products that potentially could be affected.

As memorable as the romaine lettuce outbreak was with 210 illnesses and five deaths across 36 states, it was not the only outbreak of 2018. The year was filled with other foodborne illness outbreaks including Cyclospora, Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli in vegetables, ham, eggs, turkey, chicken, ground beef, and breakfast cereal, just to name a few.

What is happening? Is our food becoming less safe? Or are we getting better at detecting it? Simultaneously, as we are approaching full implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) (Public Law 111-353), we have made significant technological advances in detection methods of pathogenic foodborne illnesses and have seen increased efforts by public health agencies to identify outbreaks quickly for rapid response. Illnesses that once went undetected or were viewed as sporadic, unrelated illnesses five years ago, are now being identified and linked to other illnesses with identical genetic fingerprints. This, in addition to increased reporting requirements in the food industry, has resulted in an uptick in product recalls—some with and some without associated illnesses.

FMI represents the retail industry and during any crisis situation, provides resources to help manage the risk. Utilizing our deep relationships with Federal and State regulatory officials, we have been working tirelessly to make sure the events of 2018 are not repeated. FMI has participated in numerous meetings with FDA officials to discuss lessons learned from the romaine lettuce outbreak and how improved communication among the involved parties could have made a dramatic difference in the execution of the public health alert. We have engaged in conversations about other outbreaks impacting retailers to share the perspective of FMI members and make sure history does not repeat itself.

Preventing contamination is always the priority, followed by detection and response. The watchful work of food safety may not get easier anytime soon, necessitating that we work together to learn from every incident while sharing the common goal of selling safe food to our customers.

With all the things that are unknown or cannot be explained, we do know:

  • Consumers expect the food in their neighborhood grocery store to be safe – they don’t even question it, they expect it;

  • Day in and day out, food safety professionals must plan for the unexpected. We are built for this – always thinking of what could go wrong, assessing the risk and taking action to prevent the problem from occurring;

  • Having strong relationships with peers, suppliers, regulatory officials, scientific experts and FMI is critical to receiving timely information when the unexpected happens, so the impact on a business can be held to the minimum;

  • Doing the right thing while willingly and openly communicating to customers is always the best way to manage a crisis; and

  • Prevention is the best defense when it comes to protecting our food supply.

In this time of uncertainty, FMI is doing what we do best to address these food safety challenges with the help of our Food Protection Committee and other member driven programs including: