Romaine lettuce is starting to appear in grocery stores and restaurants again after an E. coli outbreak that sickened people in several states forced a recall of nearly all the lettuce. But if you can’t identify where the romaine was grown, it’s probably a good idea to avoid it.
That’s the gist of an update from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. According to the announcement, federal and state investigators using traceback methods have identified one source of the outbreak as Adams Bros. Farms in Santa Barbara County, California.
FDA investigators visited several potential outbreak sources to take hundreds of soil and water samples as well as swab samples from surfaces and equipment. Most of the tests were negative, but a sample from the sediment of an irrigation reservoir used by Adams Bros. Farms in Santa Maria, California, came back positive for a genetic match of the E. coli outbreak strain.
Originally the FDA advised consumers to avoid all romaine lettuce grown in California’s Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Ventura counties. Now, after testing and the end of the romaine growing season in some parts of California, the FDA says it’s safe to eat romaine from San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, and Ventura counties if it was harvested after Nov. 23. Romaine grown hydroponically or in greenhouses is also safe to eat.
The FDA says that the recall, combined with the end of the romaine growing season, created a “clean break” that effectively purged the contaminated lettuce from the market.
Last month, the FDA said it was working with growers to implement new labeling requirements that would expedite investigations of future outbreaks and subsequent recalls.
“We’re able to report that consumers are starting to see romaine lettuce on the market labeled with the harvest origin of the romaine, along with the date of the harvest,” Dr. Gottlieb said.
“This will improve the ability of the FDA to provide more targeted information to consumers in the event of a future outbreak of illness,” he added. “We’ll continue to work with the leafy green industry on our task force to find solutions for long term labeling of romaine lettuce and other leafy greens for helping to identify products and ways to improve traceability.”
The FDA said that Adams Bros. Farms is one source of the E. coli outbreak, but its traceback investigations have determined there are likely other sources in the supply chain.
“Our traceback work suggests that additional romaine lettuce shipped from other farms could also likely be implicated in the outbreak,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “Therefore, the water from the reservoir on this single farm doesn’t fully explain the common source of the contamination.”
The FDA continues to investigate the outbreak, which has sickened at least 59 people in 15 states.