A not so public public outbreak of E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce sickened people in a dozen states from July through early September, but U.S. officials did not release any information about it until Halloween.

Both the FDA and CDC investigated the outbreak of infections from potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7, but the federal agencies “did not identify actionable information for consumers” and therefore did not reveal the outbreak. The top food safety official at the Food and Drug Administration took the opportunity Thursday night to post a statement about the outbreak and to remind the leafy greens industry to review its food safety practices.

That reminder from Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, comes in the wake of two E. coli outbreaks in 2018 that sickened more than 270 people total, killing five. The outbreaks had unusually high hospitalization rates of between 46 percent and 48 percent. The outbreaks were traced to romaine lettuce from the Yuma, AZ, and California Central Coast growing regions.

Yiannas made it clear on Halloween that neither he nor the FDA believe the public should avoid romaine lettuce.

“The FDA is communicating details about the outbreak at this time to help ensure full awareness by the public and to highlight the ongoing importance of industry actions to help ensure the safety of leafy greens. Federal health officials do not believe there is a current or ongoing risk to public health,” according to the statement from Yiannas.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the FDA about the outbreak in “mid-September,” according to the Halloween statement. Yiannas said the FDA immediately began an investigation that included state agencies. Investigators were sent to visit farms located in California’s Central Coast region that were identified through a traceback investigation.

However, because it was believed that all of the implicated romaine lettuce was past its shelf life, the FDA did not opt for public transparency, instead choosing to leave the outbreak in the shadows.

“. . .when romaine lettuce was identified as the likely source of the outbreak, the available data at the time indicated that the outbreak was not ongoing and romaine lettuce eaten by sick people was past its shelf life and no longer available for sale,” according to the statement issued by FDA’s Yiannas.

“. . . Since the outbreak strain was not detected in samples collected from farms during the traceback investigation, and there have been no new cases since Sept. 8, 2019, the outbreak appears to be over.”

Failing to reveal the outbreak as soon as the CDC and FDA became aware of it is an example of an inexcusable lack of transparency on the part of the government, said Seattle-based food safety attorney Bill Marler.

Marler said withholding information about the outbreak shows a synergy between government and industry that is not in the best interest of public health.

“I learned about this outbreak last week but assumed the information was incorrect because I just couldn’t imagine the FDA and CDC would withhold such vital information from the public,” Marler said Thursday night after reading the FDA statement.

“Transparency on behalf of people in charge of food safety is absolutely vital for us to protect the public health. If FDA and CDC aren’t transparent in these situations they just don’t care about food safety.” 

Outbreak investigators collected and tested environmental samples from some romaine farms, but the outbreak strain was not identified, according to the FDA statement. While romaine lettuce is the likely cause of the outbreak, the investigation did not identify a common source or point where contamination occurred.

The outbreak sickened 23 people in 12 states. Of those patients with complete information available, 11 were so sick they had to be hospitalized. The states where illnesses were confirmed and the number of sick people in each state were: Arizona with 3, California 8, Florida 1, Georgia 1, Illinois 2, Maryland 1, North Carolina 1, Nevada 1, New York 1, Oregon 1, Pennsylvania 2, and South Carolina 1.

Illnesses started on dates ranging from July 12 to Sept. 8. No illnesses were reported after CDC began investigating the outbreak on Sept. 17, according to the FDA statement. 

Editor’s note: Bill Marler is publisher of Food Safety News.

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