(UPDATED Jan. 7) Media coverage of the E. coli outbreak that health officials are investigating as possibly linked to romaine lettuce is increasing, along with calls to avoid romaine, even though no recall has been issued.
In a Jan. 4 NBC Nightly News report, the channel’s medical correspondent John Torres advised consumers to avoid romaine “if they are worried.” The same day, Consumer Reports told consumers not to eat the lettuce. And also on Jan. 4, foodservice giant Compass Group alerted its distributors to use leafy greens other than romaine.
On Jan. 6, the United Fresh Produce Association e-mailed a second member alert on the outbreak, stressing that the last U.S. case was reported Dec. 8; the last case in Canada was Dec. 12.
“This fact makes it very unlikely — even if the outbreak is tied to romaine —that any affected product remains in marketing channels,” according to the Jan. 4 member alert.
United Fresh is working with the Arizona and California Leafy Green Marketing Agreements, the Produce Marketing Association and its Canadian counterpart and Western Growers. The alert assured members the combined associations are using “partnerships to encourage government agencies to declare this outbreak is over.”
United Fresh has been in contact with the CDC about the outbreak over three weeks and “repeatedly” on Jan. 5, according to the member alert. The association has contacted epidemiology and food safety experts who could be made available for media interviews.
The first reports of an outbreak came from the Canada Public Health Agency, which on Dec. 11 reported 40 illness and a death from E. coli linked to romaine lettuce. Since then, the agency has released three more updates, increasing the illnesses by one, but no information on how romaine became suspect has been released.
Canadian retailer Sobeys pulled 300 romaine products from store shelves across the country, and 26 Jungle Jim Eateries in that country removed the lettuce from menus.
On Dec. 28, the CDC announced it was investigating an E. coli outbreak that was genetically similar to the Canadian cases, but more precise whole genome sequencing would be completed to prove or disprove the link. The CDC then reported 17 cases in 13 states.
Since then, the CDC reported a death in California in the outbreak. California public health officials declined to release details because of confidentiality rules.
In the U.S., the Compass Group appears to be the only company that has announced such a move.
Cheryl Queen, a Compass Group spokeswoman, said the company errs on the side of caution when there are “emerging concerns in the supply chain” as a standard practice.
The company took into account the length of time since the last reported case, recognizing “the inherent” delay from when an illness starts and when it’s reported to health officials.
“This delay, well documented by public health agencies, typically takes 2-3 weeks for certain infections,” Queen wrote in an e-mail. “This fact underpins our suspension action while we await the release of additional information from public health authorities. We are eager to be able to narrow or lift our romaine suspension with confidence.”