Beyond the painful toll on those who have been stricken, the tragedy is that the association between romaine lettuce and a foodborne outbreak linked to the E. coli pathogen has become predictable.

Take social media, for example. Here were a few tweets the morning of Nov. 25:
From consumers:

  • Bro Romaine lettuce tries to murder us every two months;
  • AGAIN with the romaine?!
  • How many more e coli romaine lettuce outbreaks do we need to have before we ban romaine all together??

A tweet from a school district:

  •  Due to the recent recall of romaine lettuce in the Salinas California area, PLSD Food Service Department is being proactive and pulling all lettuce and leafy green products Monday and Tuesday, November 25th and 26th. We wish you a safe and happy Thanksgiving holiday!


Here is what the FDA said in a "recommendation"  Nov. 22:

FDA, CDC, and state health authorities are investigating an outbreak of illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7 in the United States. Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback evidence indicates that romaine lettuce from the Salinas, California growing region is a likely source of this outbreak.  Consumers should not eat romaine lettuce harvested from Salinas, California.



This year’s outbreak is different in one important respect: 

New labeling measures are in place to identify where romaine is grown, which in theory should limit the damage to the category while safeguarding the health of consumers.

From The Packer's coverage in late November last year, when the new labeling system was put in place:

The Food and Drug Administration says romaine lettuce is now safe to eat following the “purge” of product on the market, and will allow supplies to resume, after grower-shippers agreed to new labeling standards that will include where the lettuce is grown.

The agreement, negotiated by romaine grower-shippers, processors and industry associations, will be the new standard for romaine packed in the U.S. The standards follow an E. coli outbreak linked to 43 illnesses in the U.S. and 22 in Canada, as of Nov. 26.

 “A number of produce associations also have agreed to support this initiative and are recommending that all industry members throughout the supply chain follow this same labeling program,” according to the United Fresh Produce Association, in an e-mail alert to members Nov. 26 sent several hours before the FDA released a statement lifting the advisory that virtually banned romaine in the U.S.

According to the FDA statement, the new labels are voluntary, but its updated message to consumers suggests it’s against shippers’ interest to forego the label:

“Based on discussions with major producers and distributors, romaine lettuce entering the market will now be labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date,” according to the FDA. “Romaine lettuce entering the market can also be labeled as being hydroponically or greenhouse grown. If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it.”



However, the labeling of romaine by region may not have the intended effect. In a Nov. 23 media alert, Consumer Reports said this:

The FDA is currently advising consumers to avoid lettuce grown in Salinas, and directing them to read the labels on the lettuce they buy. According to the FDA, lettuce grown in other areas does not appear to be linked to the current outbreak. Hydroponic or greenhouse lettuce also does not seem to be involved.

But CR’s experts think it is prudent and less confusing for consumers to avoid romaine altogether, especially because romaine is also sold unpackaged and in restaurants, and customers can’t  always be sure of the origin that lettuce.

“Much of the romaine lettuce on the market at this time of year is from Salinas,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “Last year, also right before Thanksgiving, there was an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, and the FDA and the CDC warned people against eating any romaine lettuce and called on stores and restaurants to stop selling it.”

When the growing area labels were first introduced, CR food safety experts found that as a warning system for consumers to protect themselves in real time, the program had flaws, and that stronger measures would be needed to keep consumers safe. The system is unrealistic, Rogers says, because it relies on shoppers knowing there has been an outbreak, remembering its origin, and also knowing to look for label.

Even so, Rogers says it is safer in the midst of a rapidly changing outbreak to simply forgo all raw romaine for now, especially for people who are vulnerable to food poisoning and its effects, meaning the elderly and very young and pregnant women.

“If the package is clearly marked with the growing area and it is not Salinas, or you can find hydroponic or greenhouse-grown romaine—which wouldn’t be affected, that’s fine,” says Rogers. But we think that consumers will not find it so easy to make that determination, and we would rather see them play it safe and choose other types of lettuce right now.”

Consumer Reports also states that what the industry has done is not enough. More from the CR Nov. 23 media alert:

How the romaine involved in this outbreak became contaminated isn’t known, but in past outbreaks, the likely source was irrigation water tainted with E. coli-containing cattle feces from a nearby cattle operation. 

According to a release issued by the LGMA regarding this outbreak: “A very stringent set of food safety practices is enforced on leafy greens farms through the LGMA system. The role of the LGMA is to verify through government inspection that leafy greens producers are following a set of food safety practices on the farm. Each LGMA member is subject to 4 to 5 on-farm audits each year that are conducted by government officials.”

But CR experts note that clearly it isn’t enough. 

“This latest outbreak is an urgent reminder that the FDA and food companies must take tougher action to protect the public,” said Michael Hansen, Ph.D. senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “The FDA should immediately require growers to abide by strong standards to ensure irrigation water is safe and sanitary.  It’s also critical for the FDA to implement mandatory farm-to-fork industry recordkeeping requirements so it can quickly identify the source of foodborne illness outbreaks.”
Consumer Reports supports a bill introduced just this week, the Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act, that would give the FDA the power to inspect animal feedlots for pathogens that may be triggering outbreaks. 


TK: How will all of this play out in the market?  One broker told me Nov. 25 that the demand was still brisk for romaine from Yuma, with naked romaine from  $12 to $21 per carton and romaine hearts from $21 to $30.

In another echo of last year, the distinction between a recall notice and consumer advice is critical. Because the FDA issued a consumer recommendation/ advisory not to eat romaine lettuce from Salinas instead of issuing a  recall, receivers are not able to get credit from shippers on the romaine they have to dump, the broker said. Receivers are understandably not happy, he said. In fact, no one is happy now.



The Packer’s Chris Koger has been doing a great job covering the story, and here are a few of the links to his coverage:

Ready Pac brand processor recalls products with romaine

Bill seeks FDA access to animal operations during outbreaks

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