The number of people sickened by the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from the Salinas growing region has increased. As of Wednesday, at least 67 people have fallen ill with over half hospitalized. Cases have been reported across 19 states. Federal investigators are working to narrow down the source of contamination. Meanwhile, loads of lettuce are being thrown out this Thanksgiving.
At the Johnson Canyon Landfill and Recycling Center in the city of Gonzales, truckloads full of romaine have been coming this week. Patrick Mathews is General Manager and Chief Administrative Officer for the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority. It manages waste, recycling and organics.
“In the course of the hour and a half I've been here, I've seen seven trucks come in already,” Mathews said on Tuesday.
And that equals nearly 70 tons. A yellow loader with big wheels rolls over the boxes to help separate the cardboard from the freshly packaged romaine. Then, the de-packaging facility will separate the plastic from the organic material.
“We're trying to recover this material as much as possible and compost it and treat it that way instead of throwing it into the landfill,” said Mathews.
Compositing is a recognized treatment process for E. coli. For Mathews and many others, this massive purge of romaine is déjà vu.
For two years in a row now, federal officials have issued advisories to avoid romaine right before Thanksgiving. Last year was a nationwide warning, throw out all romaine. This year, federal investigators zeroed in on the Salinas Valley.
Peter Cassell is with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is investigating the outbreak along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Teams from FDA and CDC are out in the Salinas growing region collecting environmental samples that will be sent back to our labs for analysis and our goal is to match them with the pathogen that has caused this outbreak,” Cassell said.
The Salinas growing region includes Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
Norm Groot is Executive Director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, a commodity based advocacy organization for agricultural producers, farmers and ranchers. It has roughly 400 to 500 members.
Just outside Groot’s office in Salinas, a cooling facility to keep produce fresh hums in the background. He would like to see faster investigations from the FDA. He says local farmers are frustrated.
“Also now, I'm hearing anger because this is really much more widespread than it really needed to be,” Groot said.
And he says that hurts farmers who are not involved. The Salinas Valley is known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” because most of the nation’s lettuce is grown here. He says it’ll be a few months before they know the economic impacts. Figures from last year show these outbreaks shake consumer confidence.
“If you look at the fresh romaine production from last year, which was 2018, we saw a hit of 24 percent reduction in the amount of produce that was shipped from the valley. So it does have a severe economic impact,” said Groot.
Food safety improvements have been made since last year’s outbreak, largely credited to the Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. It formed in 2007, following an E. coli outbreak linked to spinach. Members follow a set of food safety practices. There are now bigger buffers between growing operations and nearby animal operations plus new rules around irrigation.
The industry has also since adopted voluntary labeling of a product's growing region and harvest date. This helps federal officials warn consumers about what’s safe and what’s not. In this case, romaine grown outside of the Salinas region is safe to eat. Anything that’s grown hydroponically or greenhouse-grown is safe too.
Dr. Jennifer McEntire says even with these strides, more needs to be done.
“So we need to ask ourselves what is happening here. What are we missing? How can we figure this out to make sure that these things don't continue to occur,” she said.
McEntire is Vice President of Food Safety at United Fresh Produce Association, a national trade group that represents the entirety of the fresh fruit and vegetable industry.
She says it's crucial the industry moves toward fast electronic traceability. Most cases of leafy greens are labeled with a barcode. But as that case moves through a complex supply chain network of distributors, restaurants and grocery stores, the information gets lost.
“The challenge is that that information isn't being scanned. It isn't being transmitted as the product moves through the supply chain toward the consumer,” said McEntire.
She says systems are better capable today to do that either electronically or with someone physically scanning the cases. It’s not a new idea and it is happening in bits and pieces. Now, there’s a re-energized push to get everyone involved. After last year’s outbreak, romaine stakeholders got together and set goals for establishing electronic traceability – by January 2020, make sure all cases are labeled, and by September 2020, make sure the end of the supply chain is capturing the data, either electronically or physically scanning the barcodes.
“If we could get back to the source, we have a much better chance at understanding exactly what went wrong so that we can be very deliberate in putting measures in place to prevent something like this from happening again,” McEntire said.
And that will save vital time for investigators, reduce the financial impact on farmers and stop so much food waste.