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Thanksgiving, Food Safety, and the Anonymity of Prevention

It’s the day before Thanksgiving and, this week, you haven’t heard about any reported foodborne outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce. You haven’t seen any recalls of romaine lettuce in the news. And you haven’t heard of any widespread or sweeping advisories by the FDA or CDC advising consumers to avoid eating any romaine lettuce, regardless of where it’s grown.

Between 2009 and 2018, the FDA and CDC identified 40 foodborne outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infections in the U.S. with a confirmed or suspected link to leafy greens. Many of these outbreaks occurred year after year around this time. In fact, right before the Thanksgiving holiday of 2018, a large outbreak resulted in a nationwide advisory to avoid all romaine lettuce. This at a time when Americans were sitting down around the dinner table to give thanks in a celebration largely centered around food.

So, why is it that during these past three Thanksgiving holidays romaine lettuce has NOT been in the news? Well, I call it the anonymity of prevention. And, very importantly, I don’t think it has happened by chance.

I personally think it’s a result of collaborative action by stakeholders to implement measures outlined in the Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan. That plan rallied the industry, academia, and regulators to work together. At that time, as Deputy Commissioner, I also asked the FDA to declare as a “reasonably foreseeable hazard” a recurring, persistent strain of E. coli O157:H7 from a region in California, which got everyone’s attention and work more focused.

So today, I want to give a big “Thank You” to everyone involved, especially growers and food processors, that have had made so many food safety enhancements over the years. It's a significant achievement – three years in a row with romaine lettuce remaining on the menu at Thanksgiving.

Don’t worry, I get it. When it comes to producing safe food, past success is no guarantee of future success. Food safety has to be done the right way, each and every day. Therefore, let's all stay laser focused on continual improvement and prevention.

However, today I want to celebrate this accomplishment and say, “Thank You.”

Together, we CAN bend the curve of foodborne illness so that consumers can live better lives.

Have a Safe and Happy Thanksgiving.

Frank Yiannas

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