By: Candess Zona-Mendola

In the midst of the two E. coli outbreaks plaguing the United States and Canada, it seems that, despite the lack of recalls in either country, some companies are taking it into their own hands to suspend romaine lettuce sales. With a case count of almost 60 sick and two dead from the two outbreaks, concern is mounting.

Today, the Chicago Tribune broke the news that the United States’ largest food service company, Compass Group, has suspended romaine use in its products during the pendency of the joint E. coli investigations. The company, among others, has taken matters into their own hands despite CDC’s statement, “[b]ecause we have not identified a source of the infections, CDC is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food. This investigation is ongoing, and more information will be released as it becomes available.” The suspension follows the steps of Canadian retailer Sobeys and Jungle Jim Eateries who have removed romaine from their shelves and menus across Canada.

Warnings Here and Abroad

Although the CDC states the strains of E. coli appear to be related, they are still waiting confirmation that the outbreaks share a common source.

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports has a made staunch warning to avoid eating romaine lettuce, at least until more information is made available about the outbreak. The Public Health Agency of Canada has also made warnings and told its citizens:

“It is difficult to know whether a product is contaminated with E. coli because you can’t see, smell or taste it. Romaine lettuce can have a shelf life of up to five weeks; therefore it is possible that contaminated romaine lettuce purchased over the past few weeks may still be in your home. Individuals in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador should consider consuming other types of lettuce, instead of romaine lettuce, until more is known about the outbreak and the cause of contamination.”

The company told the Chicago Tribune that they are suspending use of romaine indefinitely until the CDC issues more information on the source of the contamination. The news agency reported that Compass notified its distributors about their decision and recommended “alternative leafy greens for use in the business.”

On the Flipside

As several companies are proactive in their stance on the outbreak, others are weighing-in on the contrary. Produce News reported this week that “no public agency has contacted any Romaine lettuce grower, shipper or processor and requested that they either stop shipping or recall product already in the marketplace.”

In conjunction with this, the United Fresh Produce Association, the Produce Marketing Association, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers, California Leafy Greens Agreement and Arizona Leafy Greens Agreement issued its own statement on the matter late this week:

“Even if this outbreak is actually confirmed to be caused by Romaine lettuce, it’s important to recognize this is a highly perishable product with a limited usable shelf life and it’s highly unlikely a specific affected lot would still be available for sale or in a home refrigerator with the last U.S. illness being reported on December 8 and the last Canadian illness reported December 12.’

United Fresh went on to state that “[t]his fact makes it very unlikely — even if the outbreak is tied to romaine —that any affected product remains in marketing channels,” according to its January 4, 2018 member alert.

This food safety advocate is not so sure about that. I would rather operate on the old adage “when in doubt, throw it out,” until more information is released.

Monitor for E. coli, Keep in the Know

Until the CDC or the FDA issues a notice that romaine is indeed the culprit and information about where the romaine came from, those in the US should still remain cautious. The CDC and FDA are continuing to investigate the details of this outbreak.

As we await more news, it is a good idea to be mindful of what you are eating. Symptoms of an E. coli infection usually show within 2 to 10 days after eating food contaminated with E. coli. Keep on the lookout for the tell-tale signs of the infection: vomiting, nausea, watery (sometimes bloody) diarrhea, abdominal pain, and (potentially) fever. Urgent medical attention is recommended at any sign of the infection, especially if you have eaten romaine recently or are at high risk for foodborne illness. The type of STEC E. coli in these outbreaks, E. coli O157, is particularly dangerous. E. coli does not discriminate either. Even those who are healthy can be susceptible to serious infection and potential long-term complications.

Handwashing and cooking of meats and produce (especially romaine lettuce) is recommended to help prevent infection and the spread of the outbreak.

UnsafeFoods will continue to report on this outbreak and any potential recalls as more information is released. Check back with us for more updates.

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