(2423)#foodfodie | How identifying root causes could help prevent foodborne illness outbreaks

The FDA is already ramping up its prevention efforts, especially for products such as romaine lettuce. This month, the agency released an action plan for leafy greens to help prevent and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks with a variety of efforts including increasing water safety rules, education and purification methods; prioritizing inspections; strengthening food safety specifications for buyers; and creating a voluntary data trust to assist with analytical research to help with prevention.

Despite efforts over the years, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 40 foodborne outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections in the U.S. between 2009 and 2018 with a confirmed or suspected link to leafy greens. Since leafy greens have continued to be an issue despite prevention efforts, FDA is looking to work more on root cause analysis in the future. 

The agency announced in January that the latest romaine outbreak appeared to be over, but no source of contamination or root cause was identified. However, the FDA said it will continue to investigate the underlying root causes during this year’s growing season.

The purpose of the Pew guide is not only to improve food safety through root cause analysis, but also to encourage the sharing of information and lessons learned from the investigations. Last year, the FDA was criticized for waiting six weeks to announce a romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak. 

Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at FDA, told Pew in a Q&A released alongside the report that due to the long time it takes until illnesses are detected, reported and traced to a source, investigations following the romaine outbreaks have been "challenging." He said the agency plans to work with federal and state partners to accelerate foodborne illness reporting and tracing of contaminated produce back to its source, which will lead to more meaningful root cause analysis. 

"The time has come for the field of food safety to further advance this approach," he said. 

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