(Nov. 8) A recent outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 involving Dole bagged salads sold in Minnesota drew national headlines and prompted an alert in early October from the Food and Drug Administration.

Now, the FDA is taking a closer look at the lettuce business.

In a Nov. 4 letter to produce associations and companies that grow, ship and handle fresh lettuce, the FDA voiced concerns about the safety of lettuce products from California’s Salinas district, in particular.

The agency voiced “serious concern with the continuing outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of fresh and fresh-cut lettuce and other leafy greens,” Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in the letter.

After the letter went out, Brackett met with lettuce shippers and representatives of the Produce Marketing Association, the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, the Alliance for Food and Farming and the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association during PMA’s Fresh Summit 2005 on Nov. 4-8 in Atlanta.

“The industry certainly takes foodborne illness very seriously,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based PMA. “While we can’t get to zero risk, we want to come as close as possible. I think the industry is doing a lot in the area of food safety. These outbreaks that have caused concern to FDA certainly concern everyone else, as well, and I think everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to reduce this.”

The FDA intends to play host to future meetings with industry members, and Brackett will visit the Salinas district.

Industry members said they are working jointly with university scientists and government officials to rectify any problems.

“I’d look for Dr. Brackett and others to have reinforced (opinions about) the high level of practices that are already implemented,” Matt McInerney, executive vice president of the Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said of the impending FDA visit to Salinas. “But I expect industry and others to be partners at the table to be good listeners and to determine collectively (whether) there are ways to relook at it and decide on key research issues that need to be prioritized.”

In its letter, the FDA cited 18 outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7-related foodborne illnesses linked to lettuce and one involving fresh-cut spinach.

“The outbreaks account for approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths,” Brackett said in the letter.

Completed FDA investigations of eight of the outbreaks connected to lettuce and spinach, including the latest incident, in Minnesota, were traced back to Salinas, Brackett said in the letter. Other tracebacks were not complete.