Health officials are investigating a series of recent illnesses from a dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria that may be linked to romaine lettuce. Five people in the U.S. have been hospitalized and one has died, according to the CDC. There also has been one death reported in Canada.
Food safety experts at Consumer Reports are advising that consumers stop eating romaine lettuce until the cause of the outbreak is identified and that product is removed from store shelves.
Over the past seven weeks, 58 people in the U.S. and Canada have become ill from the strain of E. coli (0157:H7). In the U.S., the infections have occurred in 13 states—California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont and Washington State.
Canadian health authorities identified romaine lettuce as the source of the outbreak in Canada, and are advising people in the country’s eastern provinces to consider eating other types of salad greens until further notice. In the U.S., government health officials are investigating the outbreaks, but have stopped short of recommending people avoid romaine lettuce or any other food.
James Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety and research at Consumer Reports, said, “Even though we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that romaine lettuce is the cause of the E. coli outbreak in the U.S., a greater degree of caution is appropriate given that romaine lettuce is almost always consumed raw.”
While anyone can get sick if they are infected with this strain of E. coli, young children, the elderly, and anyone who has a condition that weakens the immune system, such as cancer or diabetes, are at a greater risk. Rogers advises that people in these groups should be particularly vigilant about avoiding romaine lettuce.
The CDC and the FDA are investigating the E. coli infections in the U.S. According to the CDC, the type of E. coli making people sick is genetically similar to the bacteria involved in the Canadian outbreak. Still, the CDC says it does not have enough information to recommend people in the U.S. avoid a particular food.
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, said, “The FDA should follow the lead of the Canadian government and immediately warn the public about this risk. The available data strongly suggest that romaine lettuce is the source of the U.S. outbreak. If so, and people aren’t warned, more may get sick.”
Neither the U.S. nor Canadian health officials have provided information on where the romaine lettuce potentially involved in the illnesses was grown or processed, so for now, Consumer Reports says consumers should assume that any romaine lettuce, even when sold in bags and packages, could possibly be contaminated.
The Produce Marketing Association’s James Gorny, Ph.D., VP of food safety and technology, today issued a statement regarding these reports. It reads, in part:
PMA is working collaboratively with other leading produce trade organizations (United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers, CPMA, CA LGMA & AZ LGMA) to address consumer, media, buyer and supplier inquiries regarding an E. coli O157:H7 foodborne illness outbreak.
As such, we would like to provide you with the facts that are available to us.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not identified what food likely caused this foodborne illness outbreak. No public health agency has contacted any Romaine lettuce grower, shipper or processor and requested that they either stop shipping or recall product already in the marketplace.
Even if this outbreak is actually confirmed to be caused by Romaine lettuce, it’s important to recognize this is a highly perishable product with a limited usable shelf-life and it’s highly unlikely a specific affected lot would still be available for sale or in a home refrigerator with the last illness onset date being reported in the United States on December 8, 2017.
Food safety remains a top priority of leafy greens farmers, shippers, and processors and the industry has robust food safety programs in place that incorporate stringent government regulatory oversight.
Our leading produce industry associations have and will continue to cooperate fully with public health officials investigating this foodborne illness outbreak.
Anytime we see an outbreak of any foodborne illness, our hearts go out to the victims.