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New E.coli outbreak traced to Salinas-grown romaine lettuce

Flickr/Clint Gardner

In an instance of déjà vu, there’s a new E.coli outbreak in late November linked to romaine lettuce. The outbreak was quickly traced to romaine lettuce grown near Salinas

Of 40 illnesses reported in 16 states, more than half were hospitalized. The largest number of illnesses were reported in Wisconsin, followed by four in California.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control advised consumers not to eat—and to throw away—any romaine lettuce that was grown or packaged in the Salinas Valley, or if they are not sure of where it was grown.  That’s true whether it is chopped, whole head, precut or part of a mix.

“Restaurants and retailers should not serve or sell romaine lettuce if they cannot confirm it is from outside Salinas,” said Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the FDA. “Suppliers, distributors and other supply chain partners should also not sell or ship any romaine lettuce from Salinas.”

Yiannas added that currently, “there is no recommendation for consumers or retailers to avoid using romaine harvested from other sources outside of Salinas or labeled as indoor, or hydroponically and greenhouse-grown.”

The FDA said it was able to associate this outbreak with past outbreaks in the Salinas Valley through genetic analysis, but hasn’t been able to trace the outbreak to a specific source.

The San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department said blood in the stool is a sign to seek prompt medical treatment.

“There are two types of E.coli infections,” said San Luis Obispo County deputy health officer Dr. Rick Rosen. “One is more mild, which is associated with watery diarrhea and abdominal cramping. The other is more severe, and that is the concern in this case [as it’s one of the strains of E.coli] that produces Shiga toxin, and that it associated with bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal pain and sometimes a low-grade fever.”

The contaminated romaine lettuce has been found in a variety of pre-packaged salad kits that include Albertsons, Target and Walmart brands.

Central Coast congressman Jimmy Panetta said he’s asked Yiannas and and FDA investigators to work with industry partners to “minimize any health risks to consumers and reduce the loss of safe and healthy crops that are not connected to the outbreak.”

Norm Groot is the executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, an agricultural commodity and advocacy organization for the county's farmers and ranchers. He said the industry took a big hit after E.coli outbreak in 2018.

“The annual production for romaine decreased by 24 percent,” Groot said. “If you look back to 2008 with what happened with spinach, it took a long time for the marketplace to recover. I’m not sure how this one will play out, but in the past it’s been an uphill climb in the marketplace again to get consumers confident that what they are buying is something they are going to be safe in eating." 

Groot said all of the Bureau’s farms are members of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Association, which has strict food safety measures in place.

“We’re not sure why [the outbreaks] continue to be in romaine, other than we are doing our best to ensure what we are producing here is a safe product,” Groot said. “I think what we are seeing [with] most of these food safety issues now is that it’s either items that are beyond the control of the actual growers or producer, or there is something that we haven't thought of yet.”

Groot said farms in Monterey County are working to determine if their romaine crops are involved or processed in the same facilities as the contaminated products that ended up in the marketplace.

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday last year, consumers were cautioned to throw out romaine lettuce due to a similar outbreak, which was ultimately sourced at a farm in Santa Maria. Because of investigations into that outbreak, there have been improvements in labeling and traceability, said the FDA.

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