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US: Yuma growers adopt safety labels for romaine lettuce

In the US, romaine lettuce is being tagged with new consumer-protection labels to help reassure people that it is safe to eat after a nationwide E. coli outbreak. Lettuce growers in southern Arizona and California say the temporary labels will specifically list where romaine lettuce was grown and when it was harvested. That way, consumers will know what they're buying did not come from a contaminated region.

Industry associations are billing the move as a voluntary effort. But they acknowledged Tuesday it was the only way to get federal health officials to back off a blanket warning against eating any romaine lettuce.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Monday the outbreak was traced to farms on California's central coast and said lettuce from other regions was uncontaminated.  

Industry officials said restoring confidence after three E. coli outbreaks this year were tied to romaine lettuce will not be easy, even as newly harvested and labeled romaine begins arriving in stores. quoted Mary Coppola, United Fresh Produce Association's senior director of marketing and communication, as saying this Tuesday: "How do we expect (consumers) to react or how do we hope they will react? We know it's going to be an uphill battle to win back consumer trust."

Already doubts about the labels 
However, some say lettuce labels won’t protect consumers despite FDA promises. A day after the FDA and industry unveiled their cooperative plan for labeling romaine lettuce with harvest dates and regions, an iconic consumer advocacy organization and the chair of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus say the voluntary program has no teeth and labels will have virtually no impact on public safety.

The commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration said Monday the labels will go far to “improve the ability of the FDA to provide more targeted information to consumers in the event of a future outbreak of illness.” His announcement came a week after the FDA urged the public to avoid all romaine from all growing regions, telling consumers to throw out any they had on hand because the vegetable had been linked to a new multi-state E. coli outbreak.

Consumer Reports says voluntary use of the labels could help consumers identify romaine in the future if it is implicated in outbreaks or recalled. The group also believes it would be a good idea for the labels to be used on all leafy greens.

But, the consumer advocacy organization contends the labels don’t address the issues at the heart of the three romaine outbreaks that U.S. and Canadian officials have documented in the past 12 months. “The FDA should implement the water quality standards that it put on hold a year ago to ensure irrigation water is safe and sanitary,” Consumer Reports’ Director of Food Policy Initiatives Jean Halloran said in a news release Tuesday. “Stronger industry record-keeping requirements are also long overdue and sorely needed to help the FDA quickly identify the source of food-borne illness outbreaks.”

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