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Romaine from Salinas eyed in E. coli outbreak

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and public health and regulatory officials from several states are investigating a multi-state outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 infections linked to Romaine lettuce harvested in the Salinas, CA, growing region.

As a precaution, the CDC issued an advisory Nov. 22 warning consumers not to eat -- and retailers not to sell -- Romaine lettuce from the Salinas Valley.

According to CDC a total of 40 people from 16 states have been infected, with 28 hospitalizations reported. Five people have developed kidney failure as a result. There have been no deaths reported.

Data provided by CDC show that Wisconsin has 10 reported cases, followed by five in Ohio, four in California, three each in Idaho, Maryland and Pennsylvania, two each in Arizona and New Mexico, and single cases in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington.

CDC said all types of Romaine fall under the advisory, including whole heads, hearts, packaged and salad mixes containing Romaine. It most Romaine products are labeled with the harvest location where they were grown, and it urged consumers to check labels and throw away any that list Salinas as the harvest location.

The produce industry reacted with frustration upon receiving news of the advisory.

“No one is more frustrated than the producers of leafy greens that outbreaks continue to be associated with our products,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a food safety program created in 2007 to prevent foodborne illnesses caused by lettuce and leafy greens. “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. 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.

“For the past year, producers have been voluntarily labeling Romaine lettuce with information on harvest date and growing region,” Horsfall continued. “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.”

“We are devastated as a leafy greens community when this happens,” said Dan Sutton, a farmer from Oceano, CA, and chairman of the LGMA. “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. As farmers, we never want outbreaks to happen. 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 Grower Shipper Association of Central California said that farmers, shippers and processors of Romaine products are working cooperatively with their retail and foodservice customers to remove all Romaine grown in the Salinas region quickly and effectively from market channels to protect public health. The organization said it is unacceptable for any consumer to suffer this kind of illness, and while many growers have worked hard to make needed food safety improvements, it is obvious that more needs to be done.

As such, GSA has retained David Acheson, former Associate Commissioner of Food for the FDA and The Acheson Group, to help its members identify and prioritize next steps toward better solutions as well as work collaboratively with government health agencies and other food safety experts.

GSA said in a statement, “We said that many have worked hard to improve, and this is true -- we have strengthened our food safety practices, which are verified through mandatory government audits and new studies are now under way to advance new science and solutions at the Center for Produce Safety. This diligent work should not be diminished but we must do more and we must do it faster.”