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Publisher’s Platform: Leafy Green Cone of Silence


Over the years, we have investigated and pieced together several leafy green outbreaks that are never publicly announced despite being the cause of severe illness.  Here is an outbreak from 2009 that should have prompted a multi-state public health warning and recall, but was instead quietly put under the “leafy green cone of silence” as a food safety leader adeptly calls these non-announcements.  The Denver Post had a few things to say about this outbreak earlier this year too.

In mid-September 2009, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) identified two cases of E. coli O157:H7 cases with “matching” PFGE patterns.  In conjunction with local health officials, CDPHE began an investigation of the two Colorado cases.  During the early stages of the investigation, CDPHE officials were notified that Minnesota was reporting a person with an E. coli O157:H7 infection, also with a matching PFGE pattern.  Ultimately, it would be revealed that the cluster of E. coli O157:H7 infections with matching PFGE patterns encompassed 10 ill individuals in six states, Colorado (2) Connecticut (1), Iowa (2), Minnesota (3), Missouri (1), and North Carolina (1).

The cluster of illnesses sparked a multi-state investigation, conducted primarily by CDPHE, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS.)  The investigation by CDPHE revealed that the two Colorado cases had dined at the same restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado, Giacomo’s, on the same day, September 6, 2009.  In fact, both of the ill restaurant patrons had consumed a house salad, containing iceberg and romaine lettuce.  See April 30, 2010 CDPHE Report, Attachment No. 1.  Based on information coming in from other states, CDPHE officials conducted traceback on the lettuce and noted:

The restaurant in question obtains their romaine and iceberg lettuce from U.S. Foodservice under the name Cross Valley Farms.  This is an exclusive brand of U.S. FoodService.  US Foodservice receives both their romaine and iceberg lettuce from Tanimura and Antle in Salinas, CA.

See Email from Jennifer Sadlowski, 11/13/09, Attachment No. 2.

The investigation soon revealed a link to the same romaine lettuce for other states’ ill persons as well.  Both Iowa victims and one of the three Minnesota victims ate at the same restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska on September 5, 2009.  See Attachment No. 3, CDPHE Records, 004, 0011.  These three all consumed lettuce at the restaurant.  See Attachment No. 4, CDPHE Records, 0013-0014.  Minnesota’s supervising epidemiologist Kirk Smith wrote in an email on October 28, 2009 with respect to the Colorado and Nebraska restaurants:  “invoices showed that they both get the same brand of romaine lettuce (Cross Valley Farms.).”  See Attachment No. 5, CDPHE Records, p. 0020.

This understanding of the connection to Cross Valley Farms lettuce is consistent with the records generated by Minnesota Department of Agriculture as well.  MDA officials kept a “Daily Outbreak Summary” throughout the investigation.  The update for October 21, 2009 states in reference to the CO and NE restaurant, “From comparing the invoices of these two restaurants, they both use Cross Valley Farms Romaine in salads that the cases ate.”  The October 30, 2009 update says “The restaurants in CO and NE that are associated with the cases in those states served Cross Valley Farms whole romaine lettuce heads.  Cross Valley Farms is a label of U.S. Foodservice.  The romaine for CO came from a U.S. Foodservice distributor in Denver, the romaine for NE came from a U.S. Foodservice distributor in Omaha.”  See Attachment No. 6, MDA Records, 0045-0047.

For the remaining members of the cluster for whom information was available, investigation also suggested romaine lettuce as the source. All of this led the lead investigators to conclude that romaine lettuce from Tanimura and Antle, distributed by U.S. Foodservice was the source of the cluster of E. coli O157:H7 infections.  The email from Minnesota’s Dr. Smith sums it up well while imploring CDC to further investigate the cluster:

Briefly, there are three people (2 Iowa residents and one Minnesota resident) who ate at the same exact Italian restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska on September 5.  Two Colorado residents ate (independently) at the same Italian restaurant in Pueblo [CO].  The Nebraska and Colorado restaurants are not part of the same chain.   All of the 5 cases had salads, and invoices from the two restaurants showed that they both get the same brand of romaine lettuce (Cross Valley Farms).  Again – rock solid…. (emphasis added).

See Attachment No. 7, Email IDPH Records, 0019.

For further information, See the full CDPHE Records, Attachment No. 8; Minnesota Department of Agriculture Records, Attachment No. 9; Iowa Department of Public Health Records, Attachment No. 10; Pueblo County Health Department Records, Attachment No. 11; Minnesota Department of Health Records, Attachment No. 12; North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Records, Attachment No. 13; and Missouri Department of Health Records, Attachment No. 14.

The excuses you hear from both government and industry vary, but two themes are the same:

1.  By the time the outbreak is figured out, all the product has been consumed, so why announce the outbreak or recall the product since there is no more product in the market?

2.  The FDA and CALFERT no longer have the manpower to do a complete traceback to the specific field where the leafy greens were grown.

My thought is that the public has a right to know what has sickened them.  Consumers with knowledge help the marketplace weed out growers, shippers and retailers that manufacture and sell tainted food.  With this knowledge, consumers can “vote with their pocketbook.” As for the lack of manpower for surveillance, outbreak investigation and traceback, I tend to agree that we need more resources.  Being able to trace an outbreak to a likely source allows for learning how to prevent the next one.

What are your thoughts?

© Food Safety News
  • I look at it this way: we list sex offenders in a database (including their locations) so that people are both aware and forewarned. Why wouldn’t we do the same for farmers/food processors/restaurants/etc that cause people to get sick?

    More importantly, I think we need to have an accurate record of all food illness outbreaks. The data would be extremely useful, and most likely could be used to help identify factors that lead to outbreaks. 

    The agencies involved don’t have to do any form of alert if they feel an existing outbreak has a limited time span, but the information should be available. 

  • dillyincanada

    They withheld this information because all they cared about was the money & not how many people got sick, that did not matter to them! Essentially they got away with it, and that should not be allowed to happen!!

  • Ben Mark

    (Being able to trace an outbreak to a likely source allows for learning how to prevent the next one.) Just the same thing has happened with the melons this last summer from Southern Ind. that were contaminated in the field before they were harvested as per FDA testing. So what was the mode of  contamination, the early stage of the traceback  investigation to see were the pathogens came from was never reported, was it bad water for spraying or irrigation or wild animals/birds? It would surely help the melon growers reading this news.

  • Bill,

    Another excellent article.  Disclosure is important in order to inform the public.  Transparency in this case should not have been dependent on how lazy FDA was at a particular point in time.

  • 19Matty36

    The lack of transparency, the lack of accountability and the willingness of the the government agencies to look the other way while we are getting sick and some of us are dying angers me to an unspeakable level.  It seems to me, from reading the various industry trade publications on the internet, that in the case of the food regulators — FDA, USDA and even CDC, industry is definitely in bed with the regulators.  Makes you wish that President Carter’s imposition banning government operatives to work in industry for a period of time could have worked.  The regulators seem dirty and seem hell bent on protecting “large food” regardless of the cost in human lives and well being. 

  • Oginikwe

    My thoughts, Mr. Marlor, is that our food systems checks and balances are just smoke and mirrors. We have no rule of law when it comes to the toxins in our foods or the food poisonings that follow.  Each time meat is recalled for a deadly pathogen, there’s a USDA stamp and number attached to it.  E coli on fresh vegetables, arsenic in rice, and  salmonella INSIDE cantaloupes are examples of the circle of poison closing in on us from CAFOs and the dangerous practices therein.   Add to that the problems that reside in the food practices in China and all of the countries from which we import foods and we are sitting ducks for something to come down the pipe and kill a great number of us.  Maybe then something good will happen, but of course by then ALEC may have succeeded in pushing torte reform through and so once again, no one will be held responsible.  

    We and the people we love aren’t human beings to those who factory farm and mass produce; we’re revenue and that’s it. Eating anything from the grocery store that is mass produced is like playing Russian roulette with a fork.

    Bring back the Delaney Clause, eat as little as possible from the grocery store and grow as much of your own food as you can.  Get to know your farmer and make informed food choices.  While I trust the rank and file of both the USDA and FDA, I don’t trust the people they work for.  The FDA spying on their own scientists and the prosecution of whistleblowers taught me to not trust the FDA or the USDA, and I sure as heck don’t trust the WTO.

  • As a consumer, if I know what companies have or are having problems, I’ll avoid them-who wouldn’t????   Industry doesn’t want this obviously, hurts sales.   Great article Bill-keep at it!!!!

  • I am totally in agreement that we urgently need to know where the outbreaks, whichever outbreak,  are coming from and if there is a pattern of outbreaks from the same places. With the technology that we have available at our fingertips, it should not be hard to trace any outbreak, unless there are hidden reasons from interested parties for not allowing the investigation. Consumers need to know what is happening, our health is at risk otherwise. If a place needs to be shut down or changes made to a company to better handle its type of product, for the benefit of the public who consume it, then these investigations need to happen and action must be taken.
    Thank you for informing us. Have a prosperous and safe year. To your health.

  • Stephanie Mullany, MD, MAR

    Not only is informing the public about identified pathogens in the food supply an ethical/moral mandate of respect for persons, but it is also  a public health preventive measure.   It seems to me that most of us have a stake in a mandated practice of reporting occurrences of foodborne pathogens  and informing the public.   

  • Jolanta Ganczarczyk

    Dear Bill
    I totally agree that we all need to learn from and correct issues which have led to food illness outbreaks, otherwise how do we improve and prevent reoccurrances? no one should bury their head in the sand and say ‘it’s all too hard’, that is not only being very complacent and irresponsible, it is a recipe for disaster, and will lead to more sickness and death in the future. Everyone plays a role and has some responsibility and due diligence in the process of producing safe food. I live in Australia where it is a mandatory and legal requirement to recall any unsafe food as soon as a risk to public health is identified – even close to or after the food’s useby date. We had a national product recall for listeria in cheese just before Christmas and the cheese had two days shelf life remaining. After initiating a voluntary recall in 2012 myself and being indirectly involved in other recalls, I can say that the system works well. Of course, there are examples of cover-ups, but overall companies (and the regulators) do the right thing.
    Keep up the great work Bill, I have been following you and your work for many years and still regard it as the best source of global food safety news!