The latest multistate outbreak of E. coli illnesses linked to romaine lettuce has prompted U.S. officials to announce new measures growers have agreed to take that will make future recalls more targeted and efficient.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised the public to avoid the consumption of all romaine lettuce and other products containing romaine lettuce, despite the source. The sweeping recall was necessary, health officials said, because at the time they lacked the information to accurately trace infections back to a specific source.
Since the CDC’s original announcement, the outbreak has resulted in 43 confirmed illnesses in the U.S. and an additional 22 people in Canada. Sixteen of those infected in the U.S. have been hospitalized, including one person who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that FDA officials continued to investigate the E. coli outbreak over the Thanksgiving holiday and were able to determine that the contaminated romaine lettuce was grown in California’s Central Coast growing region.
That region of California grows romaine in the summer months, and the lettuce linked to the outbreak was part of the “end of season” harvest. No romaine grown in other regions has been linked to the E. coli outbreak.
Romaine production has since shifted to the winter growing regions of the U.S., which include mainly the California desert region of the Imperial Valley, the desert region of Arizona in and around Yuma, and Florida. Some romaine is also imported from Mexico or grown hydroponically, in greenhouses, or on smaller local farms.
The FDA said the end of the season provided a “clean break” in the romaine supply that along with the sweeping recall purged the market of the contaminated lettuce.
The agency also said it is working with romaine growers and the leafy green industry to develop a labeling strategy that could expedite the identification and recall of contaminated lettuce in future outbreaks.
Major romaine producers and distributors will now “clearly and prominently” display the harvest location and date on product labeling. Growers can also label their lettuce as being hydroponically or greenhouse grown.
“If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it,” Commissioner Gottlieb advises.
“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,” Dr. Gottlieb said.