Minnesota reports more illnesses linked to the E. coli outbreak. ( File Photo )

Health officials in Minnesota have linked 10 illnesses in the state to the nationwide E. coli outbreak connected with romaine from the Yuma, Ariz., growing region.

More than 120 cases in 25 states have been attributed to the outbreak so far, according to the latest update May 2 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The total of 121 includes eight of the 10 cases in Minnesota.

The onset dates of the illnesses in that state range from April 20-May 2, according to a news release. The most recent onset date reported by the CDC was April 21.

Health officials in the state echoed the advice the CDC gave to consumers — people should not eat romaine unless they know it does not come from the Yuma area.

Unlike the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture was more specific about the bounds of the production area in question.

Timeline of the E. coli outbreak

Hover over the buttons on the image to read about key events from April 10 on. Click on the links to read more.

“The Yuma growing region includes part of western Arizona and extends into the Imperial Valley of southeastern California but does not include Salinas Valley or other growing regions in California,” Kirk Smith, manager of the foodborne, waterborne, vectorborne and zoonotic diseases section of the department said in the release.

The Imperial Valley sits across the California-Arizona border from Yuma, while the growing regions of Oxnard, Santa Maria and Salinas are coastal.

 

Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, was concerned that Minnesota’s description of the Yuma region could confuse consumers. Mentioning a California area as part of the Yuma growing region makes it sound like the message has changed, even though it is not technically different.

Between that comment, the case count continuing to grow and no clear answers on what happened, “I can see how it would scare consumers,” McEntire said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture shipping point trends report stated May 8 that demand for California romaine has declined sharply due to the outbreak.

Grower-shippers Dole Food Co. and Tanimura & Antle have both commented that romaine business has been negatively affected by the outbreak. Consumers have remained wary even though product from the main growing regions in California has not been implicated and shipments from Yuma ceased almost immediately following the initial alert by the CDC.

Richard Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension advisor based in Salinas, also said the outbreak is hurting sales.

“It’s having an effect,” Smith said May 7. “This is the problem — lettuce is pretty expensive to grow, and you’ve got to cover your costs. You can lose money, at this point the bigger growers can afford to lose for a period of time, but then they’ve got to make it up, and it just makes it hard. We’re not sure how the year’s going to go.

“I guess the good news is that the consumers are being sophisticated enough to be focusing on the romaine (versus all lettuce) ... The reality is I guess the FDA doesn’t want to clear romaine yet because they think that the lettuce from Yuma might have a 21-day shelf life, so until the FDA clears it and then that news gets clearly articulated, I think it’s going to be a damper.

“The problem is that you don’t need much of a damper on the lettuce market to cause problems,” Smith said. “But hopefully the growers are mostly pretty diverse to be able to weather this. I think the main problem would be somebody who’s really deeply invested in romaine. I know some growers are, there’s some growers that tend to grow more romaine than others, and some big growers, but if they’re diverse enough, hopefully they’ll be okay.”

The USDA reported May 7 that f.o.b. prices for 24-count cartons of romaine from Salinas-Watsonville were mostly $6.35-$7.55 on May 7, down from mostly $7.35-8.65 on May 2.

Prices for 12 three-count packages of hearts of romaine from Salinas-Watsonville were mostly $8.35-$9.65, down from mostly $10.35-11.65 on May 2.

 
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