Lettuce Beware

J0408855 Let’s face it, it has been a bad season for vegetables.  To date, there have been 199 cases of E coli from spinach in 26 states.  Each day, the FDA has been issuing spinach status updates on the situation which are highly informative. 

Then, came the carrot juice botulism cases. 

And this week, the e coli outbreak in lettuce.  The FDA Advisory on the lettuce issue starts with [o]n October 8, 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became aware that The Nunes Company, Inc., of Salinas, California initiated a voluntary recall of green leaf lettuce distributed under the Foxy brand.

The fact that the topical sentence of this news release contains the information that the agency found out that the recall was happening, rather than was involved in the planning and execution of the recall, is enough in the eyes of some to make the agency appear a follower, rather than a leader.  Whether fair or not, it may be perceived as similar to the flu vaccine fiasco when an American manufacturer’s plant was shut down by British medical authorities and the FDA found out after the fact.  In this case, even if the agency did find out about the recall from the manufacturer, it is not a bad idea from a communications perspective to be stating that the agency is working with the manufacturer on coordinating the recall, or some other language that does not paint the agency as a passive observer in a public health crisis.  As stated many times in this space, the agency has to start acting and communicating like an agency that has a reputation to promote and protect due to the rough time it has seen over the past few years.

In addition, given so many food problems within the span of two weeks, attention from policy makers will inevitably fall on the deficits in the current system that have been exposed by these events.  If we weren’t in the middle of an election cycle, it is quite likely that some member of Congress would be grandstanding on this issue.  Before anyone else calls for an investigation and recommendations, the agency would do well to get ahead of the curve and call for an examination of the current food safety system and recommendations for addressing deficits, similar to the recent IOM report on drug safety.  That would be leading, not following and would shield the agency from having such an evaluation done for them. 

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