We’ve been reporting on the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce since federal officials first announced it on April 13. Actually, though romaine hadn’t been connected to it yet, we started reporting on the outbreak April 4. A day earlier New Jersey health officials had alerted the public to a cluster of E. coli illnesses under investigation in their state. 

Yesterday afternoon we broke the news that federal investigators have isolated the outbreak strain of E. coli O157: H7 in canal water in the implicated growing area near Yuma, AZ. They used high tech science, including whole genome sequencing (WGS) to make the match. The process takes a bit longer than other testing methods, but it’s an incredible tool, especially for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People at the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration frequently describe WGS as providing DNA fingerprints for pathogens.

Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, touted the work of the CDC and sang the praises of WGS and science in general in a statement Thursday. Kudos to him for recognizing the efforts of another agency and the significance of science when it comes to public health.

The top man at FDA also gave his agency’s employees high marks for their work on the romaine outbreak, as well as other ongoing outbreak investigations involving Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal and Del Monte pre-cut melons. Indeed, people on the lower rungs of the public service ladder almost always deserve high marks. If you’ve walked the Beach Beat with me you know how I feel about government workers: They make the world go ’round.

What I don’t understand is why the canal water samples were not collected for testing until June 4-8.

Yep. June 4-8.

Back on April 13, both FDA and CDC reported that romaine from the Yuma growing region was implicated in the outbreak.

“Epidemiologic evidence collected to date indicates that chopped romaine lettuce is the likely source of this outbreak. Twenty-six (93%) of 28 people interviewed reported consuming romaine lettuce in the week before their illness started,” CDC reported and FDA referenced in their April 13 updates.

“At this time, no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand has been identified. However, preliminary information indicates that the chopped romaine lettuce was from the Yuma, AZ, growing region.” 

Maybe it’s just my calendar, but there were seven weeks of opportunity to test canal water — the most common source of irrigation water in the area — before the FDA collected samples. I doubt the rank and file investigators suggested that delay. 

Considering the fact that CDC scientists couldn’t start testing the canal water until they received it, their turnaround time for confirmed test results seems pretty darn quick.

But the question lingers. Why wasn’t the canal water tested sooner by government investigators?  Maybe they just don’t have enough boots on the ground, or in cubicles, or behind microscopes. You know what that means, Money. People are expensive.

“I remain committed to investing in FDA’s food program, and building on its success — and to applying the FDA’s food safety expertise to protect American families and keep them safe,” Gottlieb said in the final sentence of his 2,300-word statement. 

Let’s hope those last 30 words don’t get lost in translation.

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