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E. Coli Outbreak in Lettuce

By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) — Be careful about that salad you might eat in the coming days and take some time to know what kind of lettuce is in it and where it was grown.

A romaine lettuce outbreak has now spread to 19 states with 67 reported cases and 39 hospitalizations as the Centers for Disease Control continues warning consumers not to eat romaine lettuce from the Salinas Valley in California.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control updated details initially late last week, telling consumers to avoid romaine lettuce from the Salinas Valley due to illnesses from E. coli O157. A map released Tuesday by the CDC shows Wisconsin, with 21 cases, and Ohio, with 12 cases, have been hit especially hard by the outbreak. No other state had no more than four reported cases. https://www.cdc.gov/…

The CDC stated in a tweet, “Do not eat, sell, or serve romaine lettuce from the Salinas growing region. If you don’t know or can’t tell where the lettuce is from, don’t eat it.” https://www.cdc.gov/…

All industry sectors are asked to withdraw romaine lettuce products off the shelves and coolers from the Salinas Valley area.

The head of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) and Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., both said they were devastated by the news and would work with the FDA and the CDC to try to figure out the root cause of the outbreak.

“No one is more frustrated than the producers of leafy greens that outbreaks continue to be associated with our products,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the LGMA, a food safety program created in 2007 to prevent foodborne illnesses caused by lettuce and leafy greens.

“We are devastated as a leafy greens community when this happens,” said Dan Sutton, a farmer from Oceano, California. “Our thoughts go to those affected by this outbreak. But that’s why we want to continue to work with governmental agencies to learn why this is happening so that we can improve.”

Right now, romaine is being harvested in Arizona and southern California growing areas that are not part of this outbreak, and harvest is nearly complete in the Salinas Valley, Horsfall said. The public health risk is only focused on product form the Salinas area.

“Public health agencies have stated that only product from the Salinas area is included in the consumer advisory. Romaine producers will be working closely with their customers to make sure all product from Salinas is removed from marketing channels, but romaine from any other growing area is safe for consumption.”

LGMA added, “This means that romaine from the following regions is safe: Yuma, Phoenix, southern Arizona, northern Arizona, northern California, Santa Maria, southern California, Imperial Valley, Coachella and Central Valley. Product from Mexico and other states is also cleared. Hydroponically and greenhouse grown romaine is also not implicated in the outbreak.”

“For the past year, producers have been voluntarily labeling romaine lettuce with information on harvest date and growing region,” explained Horsfall. “Today, this information provides consumers, retailers and foodservice operators with assurances the products they are purchasing have been identified as safe for consumption. We are hopeful these actions by industry will minimize withdrawal of safe product from stores and restaurants and reduce food waste.”

The Produce Marketing Association highlighted that the investigation has shown the outbreak is not limited to any one form of romaine lettuce and could be chopped, processed or romaine hearts. Further, all of the cases are linked to a strain of E. coli O157:H7 identified in both November 2017 and November 2018 romaine outbreaks, the PMA stated.

Panetta, who represents what he calls the “salad bowl” of the country, said, “As the representative of the Salinas Valley, food safety is of the utmost importance to me and my constituents. I urged Deputy Commissioner [Frank] Yiannas to work collaboratively and communicatively with industry partners to minimize any health risks to consumers and reduce the loss of safe and healthy crops that are not connected to this outbreak. He promised to provide my office with daily updates throughout the investigation.

“I will continue to work with the FDA, CDC, and our producers to ensure that the investigation is completed in a timely manner so that our consumers are safe and our industry is secure in its production of romaine.”

The current outbreak is occurring at a time when the production of leafy greens in central California is transitioning to growing regions in southern California and Arizona. It appears that romaine lettuce involved in this outbreak was likely harvested in the Salinas Valley growing area in September and October.

“As farmers, we never want outbreaks to happen,” stressed Sutton, who serves as the chairman of the LGMA. “We will continue to do everything we possibly can to improve our required practices, to improve the way we farm leafy greens and to make sure we can improve the safety of these products we are putting out to our consumers.”

“The situation is heartbreaking,” continued Sutton. “I have a very young family and the products we grow go to my family’s dinner table. My children consume the very same products we are sending out to consumers across the nation. That’s something I think about every day.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Outbreak of E. coli Infections Linked to Romaine Lettuce: https://www.cdc.gov/…

Produce Marketing Association: https://www.pma.com/…

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@njdc.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

(CC/AG)

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