Updated 5:45 P.M. May 17
The Food and Drug Administration is still working to find answers to the fundamental questions about the outbreak tied to Arizona romaine, more than one month after the initial alert was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thirty-two states have reported 172 illnesses, including 75 people who were hospitalized. One death was reported in California.
The CDC has removed its advisory on romaine from the Yuma growing region, stating that product in homes, stores and restaurants is not tied to the outbreak. As for the investigation into the source of the tainted product, the FDA continues to report roadblocks.
“Romaine products that would have caused illness were no longer available at exposure locations, making it difficult to determine production lots of concern,” according to a May 16 FDA update. “In addition, we have found that a single production lot may contain romaine from multiple ranches, which makes the traceback more challenging.
The agency reported April 27 that it had not yet begun sampling farms because it was still going through records, and it also noted it was looking at about two dozen farms in the Yuma growing area. The FDA has not provided updates on those aspects of the investigation.
While few details have emerged, it appears the solution to the outbreak will not be as simple as one grower shipping contaminated product.
“To date, the available information indicates that romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region is the source of the current outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections, but (the romaine) was supplied to restaurants and retailers through multiple processors, grower-shipper companies and farms,” according to the May 16 update. “The information we have collected indicates that the illnesses associated with this outbreak cannot be explained by a single grower, harvester, processor or distributor.”
The FDA traced eight Alaska illnesses to Harrison Farms in Yuma — that grower supplied whole head romaine to a correctional facility in Nome — but the agency does not know whether contamination occurred at the farm or elsewhere in the supply chain.
No farm, processor or distributor has been officially linked to the chopped romaine that caused the vast majority of the illnesses.
“While traceback continues, FDA will focus on trying to identify factors that contributed to contamination of romaine across multiple supply chains,” the FDA stated in the update. “The agency is examining all possibilities, including that contamination may have occurred at any point along the growing, harvesting, packaging, and distribution chain before reaching consumers.”
Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, said the industry is examining its practices, exploring traceability options and discussing how to enable faster investigations for the sake of public health.
“Even if this is the normal rate of progress, it’s clearly not fast enough,” McEntire said.
With so many people affected by the outbreak, so much media coverage of it, and no clear answers on what happened, consumer confidence is likely to be affected, she said. Right now, the produce industry has no explanation for what went wrong.
Growers and others in the supply chain want to understand what occurred so corrections can be made. Otherwise, the possibilities are vast.
“What this triggers is a pretty broad evaluation of everything,” McEntire said.
The FDA is in a difficult position trying to investigate long after production has ceased given that what investigators will be looking at when they arrive at a farm now is not representative of what was going on at the time of harvest, she said.
McEntire explained that research indicates bacteria in a moving water source like a canal, river or stream can be detected only for a short time, and while E. coli can persist in soil under some conditions, it might not in other cases.
“It’s hard to do a retroactive investigation,” McEntire said.
Illnesses tied to the outbreak started between March 13 and May 2. The last romaine shipments from Yuma were April 16.
Numerous restaurants have been hit with lawsuits related to the outbreak, including Panera Bread, Papa Murphy’s and Red Lobster. Freshway Foods has also been listed, and a recent suit seeking class action status has named Walmart, Sam’s Club and Taylor Farms as defendants.
“These ambulance chasers are suing the wrong folks,” Taylor Farms CEO Bruce Taylor said. “Taylor Farms is not involved in the recent romaine outbreak and is not the subject of the FDA and CDC investigation. Taylor Farms has not issued any recall and has no reason to recall our healthy and wholesome products.”
Walmart provided the following statement in response to the lawsuit.
“We are committed to providing our customers with safe, quality foods,” the company said. “As soon as we were notified of the updated CDC advisory, we immediately began working with our suppliers to identify romaine products from Yuma, Arizona, and instructed our stores to pull them. We take this issue seriously and will respond appropriately with the court.”
Scott Bursor, a partner in Bursor & Fisher, the law firm bringing the suit, did not respond to a request for comment.