By: Heather Williams

The United States and Canada are facing an uncertain enemy.  An E. coli outbreak has affected 5 Eastern provinces in Canada and 13 states in the United States leading to nearly 60 people ill and 2 dead.  Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli is a naturally occurring bacteria found in the intestines of humans and animals. Illness causing E. coli such as the E. coli O157:H7, the shiga toxin-producing bacteria indicted in these two outbreaks, can cause illness involving diarrhea (often bloody), abdominal cramping, and a low-grade fever.  While many recover without medical attention others may not be so lucky.  The very young, the very old, and those with a compromised immune system may experience additional complications.  One such complication has affected several in the United States.  Some afflicted have developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome or HUS.  HUS is a type of kidney failure, which without treatment can be fatal.

While both countries have unofficially pointed the finger at romaine lettuce based on patient interviews, the real scientific evidence has not been available to pinpoint a supplier or source. As a result, no recall has been issued.

That hasn’t stopped some from leaning cautiously away from the potential culprit.  In fact, several Canadian restaurants have decided to temporarily remove romaine from their menu offerings and as of December 24, 2017 the grocery chain Sobeys Inc has pulled more than 300 romaine lettuce products from their store shelves across Canada.  Restaurants and grocers in the United States have been slow to make those decisions due to conflicting information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Reports as well as media coverage from our Canadian neighbors.  Though at least one major fast food chain, Wendy’s, has removed salads containing romaine lettuce temporarily until more information is available.  Other restaurants, such as Chipotle, are still serving romaine and keeping a close eye on the recall and their suppliers.

Big Produce Barks Back

It’s no surprise that Big Produce (the large distribution and farm conglomerates that are essentially responsible for most of the produce foods that consumers eat), is not happy with this negative press.  In fact, one such Big Produce issued a formal statement.

“All we have are the facts available to us. 

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not identified what food likely caused this foodborne illness.  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. 
  • 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.
  • Food safety remains a top priority of leafy greens farmers, shippers and processors and the industry has robust food safety programs in place that incorporate stringent government regulatory oversight.  
  • Our leading produce industry associations have and will continue to cooperate fully with public health officials investigating this foodborne illness outbreak.
  • Anytime we see an outbreak of any foodborne illness, our hearts go out to the victims.

Signed By:

United Fresh Produce Association
Produce Marketing Association
Canadian Produce Marketing Association
Western Growers
California Leafy Greens Agreement
Arizona Leafy Greens Agreement”

Of course Big Produce isn’t thrilled with so many consumers being cautious.  Farms have taken the time and resources to grow the product, packing and packaging facilities have both been paid and have the expense of handling the product, distributors have been used to ship out the product and without a recall both retailers and consumers are faced with disposal without compensation to rid themselves of this potentially harmful product.  It’s essentially a lose-lose situation for all involved.

But the bottom line is that, even with food-safety inspections and increased legislation in the food industry over the past decade, this is shaping up to be worst E. coli outbreak linked to leafy greens since 2006. It is a farm and food corporation’s responsibility to keep consumers safe. Defensiveness does not bode well for the family who is dealing with an E. coli infection.

So, Who’s Responsible?

We do not know yet.

With industry and consumers frustrated with lack of information from the U.S. government, where should the fingers be pointing?  E. coli contamination can originate from any number of places.  From the farm at the soil, irrigation, or handling.  The packaging facility where many other types of foods and foot traffic can intermingle with the lettuce.  From there distributors and retailers and then your own home are areas where contamination can take place.  With all of these options, how do you know who is responsible.

Sadly, it is a process of elimination.  Though with technology today the ability is there.  It seems the follow-through (on the part of big business) is what is lacking.  In fact, the CDC’s own Matthew Wise, an epidemiologist and CDC response team leader explained to CNBC earlier last week that, “We’ve been able to do some really detailed DNA fingerprinting of the bacteria and the outbreak in Canada and the outbreak in the United States.”  He explained the bacteria identified in each country were “really closely related to one another,” though more data is needed to determine if romaine is responsible for the outbreaks in the United States. The CDC and FDA are working to figure this out.

Some say that investigation is futile, in that the perishability of the product leads to the potential that any contaminated product has been already consumed or discarded.  If the contamination was caused by handling, this might be the case.  However, if the contamination was caused by gross contamination of a facility of farm, the illness count will continue to climb.

And, let’s face the facts, if we do not find out who is responsible and the root cause of the contamination, how can we ensure this does not happen again?

What Should Big Produce Do?

That’s a simple answer, help out!

If Big Produce is unhappy with the bad press, perhaps they should do something about it.  Instead of just “cooperating with federal agencies,” how about they use the fancy technology they already have access to, and begin publishing the negative results.  Maybe even assist the CDC and FDA in its investigations? Maybe help with testing of lettuce products? Self-identifying could lead to the responsible party revealing themselves.  Once the source is identified, it will allow a more pointed recall and an opportunity to mitigate the contamination.  This turns a lose-lose into a win-win situation. So, instead of demanding an outbreak be over – help out to figure out the mystery. Then, at least, it will be over.