( File photo )

Wisconsin health officials, investigating 33 cases of E. coli, has found the pathogen in an unopened bag of Fresh Express brand chopped romaine from Salinas, Calif.

The lettuce, with a use-by date of Nov. 14, was found in a patient’s home as part of the investigation, according to a news release from the Wisconsin

Department of Health Services. The Wisconsin cases are included in an outbreak involving over 100 illnesses in 23 states being investigated by the Food and Drug Administration, which on Nov. 22 advised all Salinas-are romaine to be pulled from the marketplace.

The Wisconsin department is conducting more tests to determine if the E. coli on the Fresh Express romaine matches the strain involved in the national outbreak. Not all patients in that state reported eating Fresh Express-brand products.

“At this time, no single product, brand, or variety of salad has been reported by all ill individuals,” according to the Wisconsin department’s Dec. 10 release. “The investigation is ongoing to determine the source of contamination and if additional products are linked to illness.”

A Fresh Express chopped salad kit has been named in connection to another E. coli outbreak, of a strain different than the one that triggered the FDA’s Salinas-area advisory. The Sunflower Crisp Chopped Salad Kits, linked to eight cases in the U.S. and 16 in Canada, may contain romaine and other ingredients from a harvest area other than Salinas, according to the FDA.

The Fresh Express chopped romaine bag has a lot code of Z301 A05B, and is labeled as Salinas romaine.

A week before the Nov. 22 advisory, the Maryland Department of Health reported it tested an unopened Ready Pac brand Caesar salad, and it tested positive for E. coli. 

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, “romaine from the Salinas Valley is still available on many store shelves.”

Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said that’s unlikely. Horsfall, interviewed on Dec. 10 before the Wisconsin agency reported finding the bag, said he’s “confident that none of (the Salinas romaine) is still in the marketplace.”

After a similar outbreak November 2018, the industry voluntarily adopted a labeling program that identifies areas of romaine harvest on the labels, and Horsfall said that enabled the FDA to issue a specific source of the romaine in its Nov. 22 advisory.

Even if retailers hadn’t complied with that directive, the industry stopped shipping Salinas romaine products on that date at the FDA’s request, and it’s unlikely any products would still carry a current “best-by” date, according to the LGMA.

The Packer has contacted the Wisconsin department for comment.

The FDA has targeted three farms as suppliers in connection with the outbreak in 23 states, but results of tests have not been announced.

“If this new outbreak (related to the Fresh Express chopped salad kit) is found to be associated with lettuce, the LGMA is hopeful that investigations of these incidents will provide additional clues on how future outbreaks can be prevented,” according to an LGMA statement.

"As always our thoughts are with those who have been sickened in this outbreak. If this outbreak is determined to be associated with leafy greens, we will use information gained from investigations to help improve the safety of our products," according to the statement.  

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FDA: Do not eat Salinas romaine, E. coli traceback continues