( File photo )

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from coastal counties in California appears to be over.

The Food and Drug Administration’s investigation into the source of the E. coli continues. After almost two months of visiting California romaine farms and facilities, the FDA found one source, but the agency said the scope of the outbreak in the U.S. — 62 cases in 16 states and the District of Columbia — makes a single source unlikely.

The FDA continues to investigate California farms that were identified as suppliers in the traceback investigation.

The CDC reported the end of the outbreak Jan. 9; the last case was reported Dec. 4. The Canadian Public Health Agency, which is working with U.S. health agencies in tracing a related outbreak in which 29 Canadians became ill, declared the outbreak there over on Dec. 24.

FDA announced the outbreak in tandem with a consumer advisory on Nov. 20 that all romaine should be discarded, regardless of its origin. That so-called “purge” allowed the FDA to ensure all romaine was out of the marketplace before allowing romaine from all areas but six California counties.

Six days later, the FDA modified the advisory, declaring all romaine safe, unless it was grown in six California counties: Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Ventura. San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and Ventura have since been cleared, but the others continue to be the focus of the investigation.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, in a Jan. 9 statement, said inspectors have collected environmental samples and are working with growers to pinpoint how and when the lettuce became contaminated.

“Our ongoing investigation into this matter will soon come to a close and we believe that its findings will help to prevent future outbreaks in leafy greens,” Gottlieb said in the statement. “In the meantime, we’re pleased that the leafy greens industry worked quickly to remove potentially contaminated romaine lettuce from the market and has already taken steps to provide consumers with important information about the specific source of romaine lettuce on packaging, via point-of-sale signs or other means.”

Gottlieb was referring to an agreement by the industry to voluntarily include the location and harvest dates of romaine products. That practice continues and could be a permanent fixture on packaging.

The only recall linked to the outbreak came on Dec. 13, and not for romaine, but on red and green leaf lettuce and cauliflower grown by Adam Bros. Farming Inc., in Santa Barbara, where the FDA found E. coli in sediment in an irrigation reservoir. No illnesses were traced to those items.

In his statement, Gottlieb said despite the partial government shutdown, health agencies are still using technology to flag any potential food safety outbreaks.

“We routinely work with local and state health departments to monitor emerging safety signals possibly indicating when a food available for purchase in the U.S. marketplace may be unsafe for public consumption,” Gottlieb said in the statement. “ … Our ability to monitor for and respond to emerging  food safety issues is maintained through the efforts of a very dedicated workforce that’s fully committed to the mission.”

 
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