You’ve heard the warnings, but here’s why this strain of E. coli is particularly hard to avoid. USA TODAY
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Romaine lettuce is being tagged with new consumer-protection labels to help reassure people that it is safe to eat after a nationwide E. coli outbreak.
Lettuce growers in southern Arizona and California say the temporary labels will specifically list where romaine lettuce was grown and when it was harvested.
That way, consumers will know what they’re buying did not come from a contaminated region.
Industry associations are billing the move as a voluntary effort. But they acknowledged Tuesday it was the only way to get federal health officials to back off a blanket warning against eating any romaine lettuce.
The Food and Drug Administration announced Monday the outbreak was traced to farms on California’s central coast and said lettuce from other regions was uncontaminated.
Industry officials said restoring confidence after three E. coli outbreaks this year were tied to romaine lettuce will not be easy, even as newly harvested and labeled romaine begins arriving in stores.
"How do we expect (consumers) to react or how do we hope they will react?" Mary Coppola, United Fresh Produce Association’s senior director of marketing and communication, said Tuesday. "We know it’s going to be an uphill battle to win back consumer trust."
E. coli cases expand in latest outbreak
Two days before Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised consumers, restaurants and retailers to throw out all types of romaine lettuce: That included whole heads, hearts, bags and boxes of precut lettuce and salad mixes. Baby romaine, spring mixes and Caesar salads also were listed as dangerous.
The Arizona Republic reported last week that Central California was the probable source of the E. coli outbreak based on harvesting dates and when cases were first reported.
The outbreak so far has sickened 43 people in 12 states. No cases have yet been reported in Arizona.
The first illness was reported on Oct. 8, about a month before harvesting began in the Yuma region, which includes California’s Imperial Valley.
Federal health officials said the only way to ensure consumers didn’t eat tainted romaine lettuce was to completely remove it from the market.
The FDA, which regulates food safety in the United States, said in a statement Monday "it was critically important to have a ‘clean break’ in the romaine supply available to consumers in the U.S. in order to purge the market of potentially contaminated romaine lettuce."
Feds blame industry for lack of labels
Produce growers are not subject to government oversight. Instead, companies that grow and ship leafy greens follow specific industry guidelines, from soil preparation through harvest.
FDA officials appeared to blame the leafy greens industry for an inability to easily trace lettuce harvests to a specific farm and then to recall produce from markets.
"Knowing the growing origin of produce will continue to play an important role in allowing consumers to avoid contaminated products," they said in the statement. "That’s why we previously called on the romaine lettuce industry to provide unambiguous and clear information to consumers regarding where their lettuce was grown and when it was harvested."
The FDA said in addition to the new labels, the leafy green industry has agreed to establish a task force to prevent "ongoing safety problems with romaine lettuce." That could involve creating standards for tracing specific products, making the labels a permanent fixture and expanding them to other products.
The Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which represent the vast majority of lettuce growers in the United States, issued an online apology and promised to work with growers and shippers to adopt the new labels.
"We continue to express how truly sorry we are to those who have been sickened by this outbreak," LGMA officials said in a joint statement. "We must do better and redouble efforts to determine how and why this happened."
Romaine lettuce harvest shifts to Yuma region
The latest E. coli outbreak occurred as the Central California harvest season was winding down and growing was shifting to winter fields.
The Yuma region is the nation’s largest supplier of winter greens — lettuce, cabbage, spinach, kale, spring mix and more. A much smaller supply comes from Florida and Mexico.
So wherever you live in North America, if you are eating a salad from November through March, chances are the lettuce comes from the Yuma area.
And romaine is king of the greens.
John Boelts, vice president of the Arizona Farm Bureau and a Yuma lettuce grower, said last week about half of the growing acreage in Yuma is reserved for romaine lettuce. Consumer demand for romaine has surpassed iceberg and other types of lettuce.
But Yuma isn’t immune from E. coli.
The latest outbreak occurred just as growers there were beginning their first harvest of romaine lettuce since an E. coli outbreak in April killed five people and sickened 210 others.
The pathogen was sourced to irrigation canals in Yuma that fed multiple farms.
Infections, kidney failure and death
E. coli is the shortened name of a bacteria called Escherichia coli that is found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals. It can cause infections, pneumonia and kidney failure. Some strains of E. coli aren’t dangerous, but others can be fatal.
It takes an average of three to four days to get sick after eating food infected with E. coli, but it can take up to eight days. Most people experience diarrhea, severe stomach cramps and vomiting and recover within one week.
Children younger than 5, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, a condition that can lead to kidney failure.
"Symptoms of HUS can include fever, abdominal pain, pale skin tone, fatigue and irritability, small, unexplained bruises or bleeding from the nose and mouth, and decreased urination," according to the CDC.
Why is romaine tied to so many E. coli cases?
Industry officials say they can’t explain the recent rash of E. coli.
"The outstanding question is, ‘What is going on?’" said Coppola of the United Fresh Produce Association. "There is something going on… We don’t know what it is."
The association compiled a 29-point Q & A about the new food labels, calling it the “new normal” for romaine lettuce. The bulletin, however, stresses that the labels are not required by the FDA and will not be standardized. Growers will be responsible for their own.
The voluntary effort underscores the lack of regulatory standards and how the industry polices itself.
Ten years ago, no uniform standards existed for leafy greens coming out of the field. An E. coli outbreak in 2006 changed the industry’s approach to food safety. Three people died and 205 were sickened in 26 states.
An investigation by the Food and Drug Administration ultimately traced the outbreak to Dole brand baby spinach farmed in California. But before the source could be confirmed, and as more victims went to emergency rooms across the country, the FDA sent a message: Don’t eat spinach.
Mirroring the latest romaine outbreak, the agency simply warned consumers spinach wasn’t safe. Overnight, grocery stores purged their shelves and restaurants altered their menus. And the spinach industry lost an entire crop.
Produce growers, who had long resisted government oversight and the need for industrywide safety standards, found themselves facing calls for state and federal regulation and demands for public accountability.
Their response was a voluntary program which required members to adopt rigorous food-safety standards, inspections and audits.
The program, developed with the help of university scientists, agricultural specialists, food-safety industry experts and government oversight agencies, created protocols for every aspect of the process. It covered pesticides, irrigation, field workers, equipment, storage and transportation.
The agreements were supported by produce buyers and retailers who aimed to ensure customers that their commodities were safe. Grocery chains signed agreements to buy only from certified growers.
Companies that grow and ship leafy greens were forced to join or they quickly found themselves without buyers for their produce.
Coppola said growers are committed to helping health officials find an answer for the latest outbreak. She said they are sharing data on farm audits and inspections and providing access to farms when needed.
"We’re doing what we can," she said. "We’re happy consumers are going to get romaine back in their diets."
Current E. coli outbreak: 43 cases by state
California: 11Connecticut: 1Illinois: 2Massachusetts: 2Maryland: 1Michigan: 7New Hampshire: 2New Jersey: 9New York: 5Ohio: 1Rhode Island: 1Wisconsin: 1
Contact consumer investigations reporter Robert Anglen at email@example.com, text HereToHelpAZ to 51555 or fill out our online form.