UPDATED NOV. 22: Federal agencies are asking romaine lettuce shippers to stop packing and selling their product as a second E. coli outbreak traced to the lettuce in less than a year is under investigation.
Retailers and restaurants have been notified to remove romaine products from shelves and menus.
Food industry associations were given brief notice of the Nov. 20 warning by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
“Despite our urging that industry could clearly identify some sources of romaine coming onto the market as not related to the outbreak, CDC and FDA also are requesting the voluntarily withdrawal of romaine lettuce before it enters commerce,” according to an alert e-mailed to members of the United Fresh Produce Association. “Retailers and restaurants are being advised to stop selling any and all romaine lettuce products immediately.”
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told NBC News that Yuma, Ariz., is most likely not the source.
“I think we are going to be in a position to isolate the region soon," he told NBC News. "There is some lettuce coming in from Mexico but most of what’s on the market is the result of end-of-the-season harvesting coming out of California right now.”
Although the FDA, which oversees food safety of fresh produce, is only requesting that romaine shipments stop, the Food Safety Modernization Act gives it the authority to force mandatory recalls. The FDA released its final guidance on the mandatory recalls on Nov. 5.
United Fresh urged members who are contacted by agencies investigating the outbreak — which includes the CDC, FDA, state health officials and Canadian authorities — to respond quickly to requests for traceback.
“The best way to limit the impact of this outbreak is to solve it quickly,” according to the United Fresh alert. “We are working aggressively with stakeholders to try to narrow the source of the outbreak so that FDA can withdraw this comprehensive advisory. If industry members receive a request from a regulator for traceback information, please respond as quickly as possible.”
In a series of documents released Nov. 1 about an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine from Yuma, Ariz., the FDA said it was implementing a surveillance and testing program to identify pathogens, and promised to follow up with enforcement actions if companies were operating under “insanitary conditions.”
FDA's Gottlieb also faulted hand-written records as a hindrance in the traceback investigation of the lettuce, and said the FDA is looking into technologies to ensure better traceability.
The CDC said the current outbreak is genetically related not to the Yuma outbreak from this year, but a 2017 outbreak that Canadian officials said they traced to romaine. In the U.S., however, agencies identified “leafy greens,” saying they were unable to pinpoint any specific variety.
In the current outbreak, there are 32 cases in 11 U.S. states and 18 in Canada.
The outbreak to romaine earlier this year, first reported in April, led to numerous produce associations, growers, academics and federal regulatory agencies, to form a produce safety task force to study the issue. In the wake of those meetings, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements for Arizona and California, which oversee safety standards for almost all leafy greens growers in those states, released updated metrics.
Note on update: The story now includes comments from FDA's Scott Gottlieb about the possible growing region of the romaine.