A Canadian and multi-state U.S. E. coli 051:H7 outbreak has led Consumer Reports (and the Canadian government) to urge consumers to not eat romaine. In late December, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) and FDA announced it was investigating the outbreak, but so far, the U.S. has not yet issued a similar recommendation.
Testing of the bacteria shows that the cases in both countries are related.
In Canada, one person has died, 17 have been hospitalized, and Canada is investigating 41 related cases overall, while in the U.S. another related death has been reported in California, and there have been 17 reported infections from 13 states.
The outbreak began in late November into early December.
One reason the CDC isn’t calling for a ban on consuming romaine is the CDC’s food consumption survey among the reported victims so far has not shown they were more likely to have eaten romaine lettuce than healthy individuals, according to Consumer Reports’ article, which quotes CDC Spokesperson Brittany Behm.
As of yet, no details have emerged of where the contamination originated, or which shipments may be affected. This lack of detail may be leading to the broad recommendation to avoid all romaine in the interim.
The widespread nature of this outbreak is a clue within itself, Dr. Matthew Wise, who investigates outbreaks for the CDC, told the New York Times.
“When we see this pattern of illnesses, we certainly would default to thinking that this was a commercially distributed product that was contaminated,” Wise says in the article..
While romaine is the likely source of the outbreak, it has not yet been confirmed.
In its article detailing the recommendation, Consumer Reports quotes its Director of Food Safety and Research at Consumer Reports, James Rogers, Ph.D.: “Even though we can’t say with 100% 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 lettuce is almost always consumed raw.”
Due the short shelf life of romaine, the outbreak is highly likely to be over. Having the bans declared at this point is frustrating growers, packers, and others impacted by the romaine ban. No one will be protected from the E. coli strain, and past outbreaks have shown that a ban can do great harm to those growers and processors not involved in the outbreak.
Because of that, several vegetable industry associations are working together to have the CDC declare the outbreak over: United Fresh Produce Association, the Arizona and California LGMAs, the Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and Western Growers.
United Fresh has posted a joint statement from all the associations on the outbreak on its website, making five points:
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not identified what food likely caused this foodborne illness. No public 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 U.S. illness being reported on December 8 and the last Canadian illness reported December 12.
- 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.