The Grower Shipper Association (GSA) said the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are investigating an outbreak of illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7 in the U.S. associated with romaine lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley region of California. According to the FDA and CDC, as of Nov. 22, 40 people have been infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 in 16 states. The illnesses started on dates ranging from Sept. 24 to Nov. 10.
The root cause of this and other recent outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce remain a mystery despite a concentrated focus on safety by leafy greens producers and government regulators.
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.
“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 California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a food safety program created in 2007 to prevent foodborne illnesses caused by lettuce and leafy greens.
The FDA says, “Consumers should not eat romaine lettuce harvested from Salinas, California. Additionally, consumers should not eat products identified in the recall announced by the USDA on Nov. 21, 2019. Romaine lettuce that was harvested outside of the Salinas region has not been implicated in this outbreak investigation. Hydroponically- and greenhouse-grown romaine, which is voluntarily labeled as “indoor grown,” from any region does not appear to be related to the current outbreak. There is no recommendation for consumers to avoid using romaine harvested from these other sources.”
“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,” said Horsfall. “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.”
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 also is cleared.
“For the past year, producers have been voluntarily labeling romaine lettuce with information on harvest date and growing region,” said 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 GSA has retained Dr. David Acheson, former associate commissioner of food for the FDA and The Acheson Group, to help identify and prioritize next steps toward better solutions, as well as work collaboratively with government health agencies and other food safety experts.
In its statement on the matter, the GSA said, “To those who are suffering with this illness and their families and loved ones, we know our apologies aren’t enough, as heartfelt as they are. GSA is committed to keeping you informed about how we advance continuous improvement in food safety for romaine products because that is truly what this is about: Making both the big and small changes throughout the supply chain, from farm to fork, each and every day. And, most importantly, keeping the health of consumers in our hearts and minds with every decision we make.”
“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.”
“We are very hopeful that what we learn from these recent outbreaks will help us to strengthen our food safety practices,” said Horsfall, who emphasized that since an outbreak linked to romaine last Thanksgiving, California and Arizona leafy greens producers made several changes to the food safety practices required of farmers. The changes include updated protocols for irrigation and increased buffer zones between leafy greens farms and adjacent animal operations.
A stringent set of food safety practices is enforced on leafy greens farms through the LGMA system. Horsfall says that the role of the LGMA is to verify through government inspection that leafy greens producers are following a set of food safety practices on the farm. Each LGMA member is subject to four to five on-farm audits each year that are conducted by government officials.
“As farmers, we never want outbreaks to happen,” said 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,” said 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.”
The LGMA is working closely with public health agencies and have volunteered to assist with investigations in any way possible. The organization also is working with other initiatives to conduct research to learn more about how romaine is the source of outbreaks.