Romaine Riddle

Amid three E. coli outbreaks, the FDA on Dec. 2 asked the industry to stop selling Salinas Valley romaine for the remainder of the season; the Salinas season was already ending as growers transitioned to Yuma, Arizona.

Romaine lettuce from the Central Coast has been an unwelcome addition on Thanksgiving tables for two years in a row, after E. coli outbreaks sickened at least 180 people in the U.S., combined. Following last year’s outbreak linked to Monterey, Santa Barbara and San Benito counties – on the heels of another linked to Yuma, Arizona – the industry voluntarily implemented traceback labeling. That labeling helped the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to focus on three unnamed growers in Salinas when an outbreak was announced on Nov. 20 this year, and to later narrow the likely location source to a single grower.

What government officials and industry representatives still don’t know is exactly why and how romaine is becoming contaminated on its way to consumers and why it’s happening with increased frequency. “We’re in the same boat as anybody else in this matter on what happened and why,” says Chris Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

FDA investigators are studying growing practices, sanitation and other possible contamination sources at several Salinas Valley ranches used by the grower, as well as along the supply chain, including preparers of bagged salads.

The initial outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that started in Maryland in September may be linked to a bagged chicken caesar salad. The same E. coli strain identified in patients was found in lettuce inside an unopened bag taken from an ill person’s home. Two subsequent outbreaks are also under investigation, one that sickened people in Washington State and the other spanning other regions of the U.S. and Canada, thought to be caused by different E. coli strains, but all linked back to the same Salinas grower. Fresh Express Sunflower Crisp Chopped Salad Kits may be behind the U.S. and Canada outbreak, according to the FDA. Valadez says a salad restaurant chain in Seattle may be linked to the localized Washington outbreak.

As the FDA and state health officials continue their investigations, industry representatives are not waiting to take preventive measures. Citing the need for aggressive action, the Grower-Shipper Association hired former FDA associate commissioner of food, David Acheson, to create a food safety system with collaboration between the industry and government agencies, Valadez says.

“We’re going to have to step up and not only be the leader of the supply but the leader in the food safety solution,” Valadez says.

If there is good news, it’s that the voluntary labeling created in cooperation between growers and government agencies helped avoid blanket warnings against all romaine grown anywhere. This fall, the FDA limited its warning to Salinas Valley-grown romaine only. Despite its latest report on Dec. 12 stating the agency is investigating a single grower, a warning to toss all lettuce grown in the region still stands. According to the FDA, the three outbreaks combined have sickened at least 120 people in 23 states, with 58 hospitalizations reported and no deaths.

Also unknown is the financial impact to Salinas Valley romaine growers and to consumer confidence. Valadez says the industry will be watching research into consumer confidence in the coming weeks.

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