The FDA has called for better labeling of leafy greens to better track produce moving forward.
Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

Unlike items such as wine or seafood, you likely don’t think a lot about where your romaine lettuce was grown. But after a recent E. coli outbreak, the FDA is urging leafy greens growers to unambiguously label the origins of its product and is urging consumers to consider this information when choosing romaine lettuce moving forward.

These substantial new measures come after an E. coli outbreak tied to romaine lettuce was determined to be the cause of at least 43 illnesses across 12 states. In a drastic effort to avoid additional cases, on November 20, the FDA advised both consumers and suppliers to throw away all romaine lettuce on the market in an effort to create a “clean break.” Though the FDA says it believes this effort was effective, it also admits that, now that a source has been determined, trashing so much uncontaminated lettuce could have potentially been avoided.

At the time of the “clean break,” no source of contamination was identified, but over the Thanksgiving holiday, further FDA investigations determined that the contaminated lettuce likely came from specific regions in central and northern California. Of course, if this information was on the label of all the lettuce in question, consumers could have determined if the lettuce they had purchased was affected.

Though the government is often accused of being slow to act, in this case, the FDA quickly learned its lesson and has already been in touch with the produce industry to make this potential solution a reality. “Based on discussions with major producers and distributors, romaine lettuce entering the market will now be labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date,” the FDA advised. “Romaine lettuce entering the market can also be labeled as being hydroponically or greenhouse grown. If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it.”

The agency reiterated, “If consumers, retailers, and food service facilities are unable to identify that romaine lettuce products are not affected – which means determining that the products were grown outside the California regions that appear to be implicated in the current outbreak investigation — we urge that these products not be purchased, or if purchased, be discarded or returned to the place of purchase.” The FDA then further clarified, “Romaine lettuce that was harvested outside of the Central Coast growing regions of northern and central California does not appear to be related to the current outbreak.”

But importantly, this new recommendation for romaine lettuce may just the beginning of a long-term change. Not only did the FDA state that it “has commitments from the romaine lettuce industry that such labeling will continue into the future and become the standard for their products,” the agency also states that the leafy greens industry as a whole will establish a task force to, in part, examine whether it makes sense to “extend the commitment for labeling for origin and date of harvest to other leafy greens.” Turns out knowing exactly where your lettuce comes from may be the next big thing.