Fresh Express salad outbreak sickens 10, kills 1


Dive Brief:

  • A long list of Fresh Express and private label bagged salad products are being recalled from 19 states after a listeria outbreak from one of the products. So far, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the outbreak has been associated with 10 illnesses, 10 hospitalizations and one death across eight states.
  • The recalled products came from Fresh Express’s Streamwood, Illinois facility and had product codes under their use-by dates of Z324 through Z350. The company voluntarily ceased production at this facility when bacteria matching the outbreak strain was detected in a bag of prepackaged romaine and sweet butter lettuce in Michigan, according to the FDA.
  • Leafy greens outbreaks are fairly common, occurring with some regularity in the last several years. They are often traced back to contaminated irrigation water at specific growing facilities. 

Dive Insight:

Leafy greens outbreaks have become an unfortunate hallmark of the winter season. While this one has not sickened too many people so far, the scope of the recall, which includes more than 200 SKUs in 19 states, means it could have a much broader reach. Frank Yiannis, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said in a statement the agency’s investigation into the outbreak and its source is ongoing.

Fresh Express had a much bigger outbreak last year, with 701 consumers reporting illnesses. This outbreak was also linked to the Streamwood, Illinois Fresh Express facility. The outbreak was over in September 2020, and it’s unclear whether the FDA determined the contamination happened in the processing facility or on the farm where the greens were grown.

Contaminated water for leafy greens has been a problem for years. After disastrous 2006 outbreaks, both California and Arizona initiated Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements — associations dedicated to more rigorous safety standards for growing salad greens and preventing outbreaks. About 95% of the nation’s greens come from those two states. LGMAs have likely cut back on the number of outbreaks in the last 15 years.

The FDA also is working to eliminate problems with contaminated irrigation water for agriculture as a whole. In recent years, several produce recalls — including a pair involving onions — have likely been caused by unclean water on the farm, according to investigators.

The agency has been working toward implementing food safety regulations for agricultural operations through the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule. Earlier this month, the FDA issued new proposed rules governing water quality and testing under FSMA.

Developed as a response to the produce outbreaks and farmer concerns, the new rules would require farms to be more proactive about their water sources, identifying and remedying specific areas in which contamination could occur. Under the proposed measure, farms would have to do an annual detailed written assessment identifying conditions that may be potentially hazardous and would need to manage their water strictly according to the plan.

The proposed rule, which is currently open to public comment, would eliminate a lot of the water quality testing previously required in favor of the more comprehensive annual assessments. Yiannis told Food Safety News earlier this month that the proposed new focus is a more holistic look at mitigating risk and “is a game changer” for industry safety. 

The FDA is working toward improving agricultural water quality on other fronts. Last summer, it partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt protocol to test and treat water used in agriculture. The program is voluntary and requires landowners to grant access to their water sources for testing.

Communication about outbreaks may become speedier and more comprehensive as well. Earlier this month, the agency also added a plan for faster and more efficient communication about foodborne illness outbreaks to its 10-year initiative to use technology to improve food safety. Under this plan, consumers could have more information at their fingertips about the reasoning behind a recall and an outbreak, and regulators could better be able to stop sales and consumption of products before more people get sick.

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