"Avoid eating romaine lettuce - it may be contaminated with E.coli." This very serious message has been given by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are advising consumers to avoid eating romaine lettuce until more is learned about the outbreak. It should be noted this outbreak and the consumer advisories are limited to romaine lettuce only.
According to the CDC, currently romaine lettuce may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and could make people sick. No grower, supplier, distributor or brand has been identified in the current outbreak, in which 32 people across 11 states fell ill.
The advice includes all types or uses of romaine lettuce, such as whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, and bags and boxes of precut lettuce and salad mixes that contain romaine, including baby romaine, spring mix, and Caesar salad.
The FDA is conducting a traceback investigation.
For the greenhouse industry, this offers the opportunity to show the traceability of their products. Gotham Greens for example responds quickly. Only recently they've expanded into romaine lettuce. In doing so they wanted to offer a more reliable, transparent and traceable supply chain.
"Situations like this remind us why traceability and transparency are so important in our food system", they respond. "We’ve seen today’s CDC report and while they have issued a blanket warning on all romaine lettuce, our internal environmental testing program shows NO E. coli in any of our greenhouse facilities. All of our lettuces, salad mixes and herbs, including Romaine, are grown, harvested and packed daily in controlled greenhouses in New York and Chicago. We only sell greens that we grow ourselves so we can assure 100% traceability. And through our water monitoring program we can guarantee that the water used to nourish our plants is free of harmful pathogens. Our hydroponic growing methods use municipal water and sterile agricultural inputs, reducing sources of contamination."
"Not from Florida"
There's more groups responding and explaining why their product should be safe. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association for example strongly urges the agency to determine the source of the contamination as quickly as possible. "South Florida’s romaine harvest season starts in early November, so Florida product was not being harvested when people started becoming ill. However, it is unfortunate that anyone has become sick, and we remain concerned for those consumers."
"Safe production and handling of crops is the top priority for growers of Florida produce. They adhere to the highest mandatory food safety standards, testing and safeguards to ensure Florida produce is safe. They also open their operations to FDA representatives periodically for inspections."
In Canada, Bamford Produce and Freshline Foods also made a statement regarding the E. coli outbreak. The Public Health Agency of Canada is also advising individuals in Ontario and Quebec to avoid eating romaine lettuce and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce until more is known about the outbreak and the cause of contamination. "At this point in time no recall has been issued. We will be advising and updating all our customers as the situation changes and if any further action is required."
"Effective immediately, Bamford Produce/ Freshline foods will cease shipments of ALL romaine products until further information is available." This includes Romaine 24 count, Romaine hearts, chopped romaine & spring mix/Mesculin Blend
Produce industry associations
A group of open field produce industry associations made a statement regarding the E. coli outbreak as well. Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers, Yuma Safe Produce Council & Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association explained in a united statement why they are relying on producers and retail/restaurant customers to support the government health agency advisories and are urging an industry-wide voluntary withdrawal of all romaine currently in marketing channels and held in inventory.
"Food safety is the produce industry's top priority. We must take swift action to protect consumers", they state. "We believe a withdrawal of romaine lettuce is the fastest way to clear up the supply chain of any romaine that could be responsible for illnesses and to make a hard, convincing and clean break from harvesting and shipping romaine lettuce until this outbreak is declared over or the source of the implicated produce can be identified. Additionally, we are calling on handlers to clean and sanitize any equipment that may have been used in recent weeks to prevent cross-contamination of product during future harvest, processing and distribution activities."
They urge a group of food safety experts from the produce industry to come together as quickly as possible to closely examine information that may help pinpoint the specific source of the outbreak utilizing the extensive traceback information maintained by leafy greens producers. "The goal of this effort is to learn any information about the geographic region or specific farms that may be tied to this outbreak. Government agencies have indicated the E. coli isolate involved in this outbreak has been closely related by Whole Genome Sequencing data to two past outbreaks linked to leafy greens in 2016 and 2017. No one wants to get to the bottom of how these outbreaks are occurring faster than the producers of leafy greens. We absolutely must do everything possible to stop recurring outbreaks. We owe this to those whose lives have been tragically impacted by this outbreak and to all our consumers who trust us to grow safe food for their families."
For more information on the consumer advisory, visit the CDC or FDA websites.