After the devastating series of romaine-linked E. coli outbreaks in 2018, leafy green growers increased their already stringent safety protocols. Then this past week, a new outbreak began to unfold.
At this point, the recall affects only Salinas Valley romaine (including whole head, cuts, and mixes). Retailers can still sell romaine grown in other regions of California and all other states, as well as hydroponically grown romaine.
The Outbreak’s Human Impact
As difficult as the outbreak is on leafy greens growers, the human toll is much more important.
As of November 26, the CDC reports 67 people have been infected with E. coli O157:H7, spread across 19 states. It’s proving to be an aggressive strain — 58% of those sickened have been hospitalized, with six people developing a type of kidney failure, hemolytic uremic syndrome.
Growers Just Improved Safety
“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), in a LGMA press release.
The new outbreak follows leafy green growers implementing a series of strict food safety measures before the 2019 season started.
Investigators never discovered the root cause of the 2018 outbreaks, so LGMA created the new safety rules by raising the bar on existing rules. Growers increased buffer zones, improved on treating water sources, and increased drip tape irrigation.
LGMA says government regulators again have not found the root cause of the current outbreak, deepening the mystery of the source of contamination.
However, the same contamination causing this current outbreak possibly also caused similar outbreaks in 2017 and 2018.
Here’s what FDA had to say:
“Genetic analysis of the E. coli O157:H7 strains from patients in this current outbreak are similar to strains of E. coli O157:H7 associated with a previous outbreak from the Fall of 2017 and the Fall of 2018 that affected consumers in both Canada and the U.S. The 2017 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 was associated with leafy greens in the U.S. and romaine in Canada. The 2018 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 was associated with romaine in both countries.”
In the past, both FDA and CDC have used stronger terms like “match” and “almost identical” when describing genetic analysis. So at this point, the genetic profile suggests a link to past outbreaks, but not conclusively.
New Labeling Rule Is Working
That this recall affects only Salinas romaine may be due to improved labeling and traceback measures adopted in the past year. If so, it may be the reason the 2019 pre-Thanksgiving recall is limited. The 2018 pre-Thanksgiving recall affected all U.S. romaine.
“The situation is heartbreaking,” Dan Sutton, a grower from Oceano, CA, told LGMA. “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.”
Editor’s note: We will update this article as new data comes in.