It’s a rare day when two multistate and one single state outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 are declared over.
It’s likely even a first-time event, just another in the odyssey that’s played out since late 2017 when romaine lettuce began spreading the dangerous adulterant that originates in bovine intestines.
The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Agency of Canada, and Public Health for Seattle-King County said the outbreaks are over and romaine is safe to eat again. Even romaine from the Salinas, CA, growing area.
But while the outbreaks or outbreak are over for the moment, the romaine problem is not solved. Neither a definitive source nor a root cause has been found. The growers of leafy greens are doing a ground-up review of their food safety protocols. California has stepped up with some leadership.
The industry was out with a swift stream of statements shortly after the governments made their announcements this week. Steve Church of Church Brothers is a leading romaine grower who serves on the Board of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. (LGMA).
“These outbreaks,” he says, “are devastating to our industry as well as to consumers, and they must stop.”
The LGMAs, in California and Arizona, are voluntary industry groups that focus on a variety of topics including food safety programs that impose more stringent standards on growers through state auditing programs. LGMA programs began in 2007, a year after E. coli contaminated spinach.
“We have to take control of our destiny,” California LGMA Chairman Dan Sutton said. “The LGMA exists to establish food safety standards for farming leafy greens. We need a focused industry-wide effort to figure out what’s happening in the environment where we farm.”
Sutton, himself a leafy green grower, says the LGMAs are “committed to making real changes” to improve the safety of their product. Both organizations tweaked their 2007-era standards since the romaine outbreaks began.
FDA reported it has not yet determined the source of the outbreaks. The agency has focused on a single farm in recent weeks, but it has not yet named anyone or any entity. To its previous find of E. coli in irrigation water, FDA has also made a find in the soil. It is not the outbreak strain or even one that is virulent, though.
A big part of the problem is that it is complicated. The industry’s root cause analysis includes three kinds of water — environmental runoff, irrigation or agricultural water, and harvest-use water — and about a dozen other non-water factors from farm labor contact to cross-contamination at harvest platforms.
“The leafy greens community is extremely motivated to get to the bottom of this, and we want to be more involved, said San Miguel Produce’s Jan Berk, who is also LGMA’s vice-chairman.
Berk suggests FDA investigators would benefit from including growers in the government’s probe. “They don’t know what’s going on in our fields the way we do, Berk says. “We are the ones who need to fix this.”
While waiting to be invited to help FDA, the LGMA growers and an influential industry association are not standing still. “The LGMA is currently conducting a systematic overhaul of the food safety practices included in our program, ” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California LGMA.
Horsfall says his group is working with Western Growers on “an open, transparent review of the required food safety practices under the LGMA.” The study will include outside expertise with new knowledge and research.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture has invited growers to a meeting on Feb. 4 in Salinas. The session is for growers to discuss research opportunities in “a broad study that will monitor environmental conditions in California that may be contributing to outbreaks.”
“Our goal is to work in conjunction with leafy green growers and with the U.S. FDA to resolve the problems that continue to impact romaine, ” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “The LGMA and the entire leafy green industry has been extremely cooperative in these efforts. We all want to see an end to these outbreaks so that consumers can have confidence in eating leafy greens. We owe this to our consumers and to our growers.:
Changes the LGMAs make to their standards and procedures are requirements for thousands of farms, which together produce more than 90 percent of the leafy greens grown in the U.S. Government auditors verify that the growers are following new requirements though mandatory audits.
The total cases confirmed in the outbreaks declared over Jan. 15 is 221 in both the U.S. and Canada. About half required hospitalization, but in this round of E. coli illness, no one died. The romaine-related multistate outbreaks of O157:H7 since late 2017were:
- Fresh Express Sunflower Crisp Chopped Salad Kits – E. coli O157: H7
- Romaine Lettuce – E. coli O157: H7
Together those outbreaks are responsible for six deaths and have sickened a total of at least 474 people in the United States with 219 or almost 50 percent requiring hospitalization. At any one time, the spat of romaine outbreaks has impacted consumers in 35 states.
Outbreaks that do not cross the boundaries of any one state are not included in the tally above. Also apparently not listed is the romaine-related E. coli outbreak that FDA and CDC kept from the public from Sept. 17 to Nov. 1. It sickened 23 people in 12 states. Of those patients with complete information available, 11 were so sick they had to be hospitalized. Illnesses started on dates ranging from July 12 to Sept. 8.
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