By: Candess Zona-Mendola

The announcement of an outbreak of E. coli O157 illnesses potentially linked to romaine lettuce is barely a week old. Yet, Produce Groups are pushing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make an announcement that the outbreak is over – even before a confirmation of the source has been announced. The agencies claim that, since the last reported and confirmed illness was on December 12, 2017, there has been enough time for any potentially contaminated products to be sold or tossed. This speculation is possibly based on the shelf-life of the product?

According to a recent story from ThePacker.com, “United Fresh is working with the Arizona and California Leafy Green Marketing Agreements, the Produce Marketing Association and its Canadian counterpart and Western Growers. The alert assured members the combined associations are using ‘partnerships to encourage government agencies to declare this outbreak is over.’ ” The article further states that, in the agency’s January 5, 2018 alert, they have been on repeated contact with the CDC. The story was released in the wake of the notices that Sobey’s, Jungle Jim Eateries, and Compass Group, Inc. have removed romaine lettuce from their rotations until further notice.

One may be left asking themselves if it is too soon to be deeming an outbreak over, even before the source is found.

 Outbreak Recap

For those new to the outbreak notices, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement and launched a website on December 28, 2017. The purpose of the notice was to inform the public of its investigation into a multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections, the source of which they have not yet determined. The website goes on to state that The Public Health Agency of Canada also is investigating a similar outbreak of STEC E. coli O157:H7 infections in several of its provinces. It is implied by the CDC that the two outbreaks may be linked.

The CDC is using whole genome sequencing on samples from those who have confirmed illnesses. They contend that “[p]reliminary results show that the type of E. coli making people sick in both countries is closely related genetically, meaning the ill people are more likely to share a common source of infection.”  However, as it can take up to three weeks for the cycle from illness to reporting to linking to an outbreak to come to fruition, more time is needed to confirm the two outbreaks are really one – and that romaine lettuce is the cause of both.

Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada cites on its website that the US is also investigating a similar outbreak. Canadian investigations have concluded that romaine lettuce is the source of the infections and that there continues to be a risk to those who consume romaine. The agency has issued a warning for its citizens to “consider consuming other types of lettuce, instead of romaine, until more is known about the outbreak and the cause of contamination.” Thus far, 41 people are sick and one has died in Canada. The cases appear to be clustered in eastern Canada in the six provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. There are 17 illnesses and 1 death in the US from 13 states – California (3), Connecticut (2), Illinois (1), Indiana (1), Michigan (1), Nebraska (1), New Hampshire (2), New York (1), Ohio (1), Pennsylvania (1), Virginia (1), Vermont (1) and Washington (1). There does not appear to be a location cluster of cases.

 More cases are likely to be linked to the outbreaks, due to the turnaround time. As traceback investigations are ongoing by the CDC, Food and Drug Administration, and the Canadian health agencies, there is hope that the common source will be found. In the meantime, no recalls have been initiated by any agency for romaine lettuce in either country.

Citizens on Alert

Citizens in both countries have been placed on alert to avoid eating romaine lettuce. The PHAC has warned Canadian citizens, and Consumer Reports have alerted those living in the United States. In its latest news release, Consumer Reports quoted the CDC:

“Matthew Wise, M.P.H., Ph.D., head of the CDC’s Outbreak Response Team, says that in spite of this finding, investigators are still not sure that romaine lettuce is the cause of the E. coli outbreak in the U.S. “We are looking at romaine and other leafy greens,” says Wise. “[The Canadians] gave us a good starting point.” He says they hope to conclude their investigation within the next two weeks.”

And Consumer Reports is not backing down from its stance. The article goes on to quote its Director of Food Safety and Research James Rogers, Ph.D, who said, “Even though we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that romaine lettuce is the cause of the E. coli outbreak in the U.S., a greater degree of caution is appropriate given that lettuce is almost always consumed raw.”

Even its Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union Jean Halloran weighed in and is calling for the FDA to make the same warning as the Canadian agency. She commented, “[t]he available data strongly suggest that romaine lettuce is the source of the U.S. outbreak. If so, and people aren’t warned, more may get sick.” She did not stop there. “FDA needs to act promptly to protect consumers’ health. People could eat a lot of potentially contaminated romaine while waiting for a company recall or for the CDC and FDA to identify the specific source of the outbreak and order a mandatory recall of the affected products,” Ms. Halloran commented. 

Thus far, the outbreaks have turned deadly. Two people have died and at least 5 people have been hospitalized.

Unsafefoods continues to follow this outbreak and any potential new warnings or recalls. Check back soon for more updates.