( Graphic by The Packer staff )

2018 was not a good year for fans of romaine lettuce and was even worse for romaine marketers.

Foodborne illness related to romaine lettuce grabbed headlines from the start to the very end of the year. 

With coverage from the first days of January, the first romaine-related outbreak was tracked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Ariz., region.

The second E. coli outbreak broke in late November, when the Centers for Disease Control cautioned consumers against any romaine lettuce for several days in late November. 

The advisory was changed less than a week later, clearing all growing regions except central and northern California and spurring a voluntary change in labeling expectations so consumers would know the region of where romaine was produced and what its harvest date was.

Dec. 6
Romaine traceback in outbreak involves many farms, distributors
By Chris Koger

The Food and Drug Administration’s investigation into an E. coli outbreak has identified numerous potential sources of the pathogen, suggesting no single farm, processor or distributor is involved.

But investigators who have been inspecting California farms and lettuce facilities for almost two weeks have yet to find E. coli in sample testing.

Te FDA released an update on its investigation Dec. 6, stating that traceback information from four restaurants in three states has “implicated 10 different distributors, 12 different growers and 11 different farms as potential sources of the contaminated lettuce. The information indicates that the outbreak cannot be explained by a single farm, grower, harvester, or distributor.”

With another painful episode related to broad warnings for consumers to avoid romaine, retail sales data showed sales did suffer an immediate setback Thanksgiving weeek.

Retail sales of romaine lettuce were off 38% for the week ending Nov. 24, according to data from Nielsen.

“With the leafy green plagued by another E. Coli outbreak (the second one this year) and many stores forced to remove all products from shelves in precautionary measures, we’ve seen what appears to be the latest dip in romaine sales,” Nielsen Retail Measurement Services said in an online report.

Nielsen reported the numbers for the week ending Nov. 24 — four days after the Centers for Disease Control warned consumers not to eat any romaine because of a foodborne outbreak linked to E. coli in the commodity.

Romaine was returning to stores in early December, after the FDA said romaine from regions other than central and northern California were safe to distribute, as long as the were identified with date and place of harvest.

The week ending Nov. 24, Nielsen said, was the lowest of the year for romaine sales, reaching just over half of sales levels seen in recent weeks.

“Down a whopping 38% in sales compared to this week a year ago, we see first hand the cost that outbreaks like this can have, “the report said.

While many sellers of romaine believe demand will bounce back over time, confidence in the leafy green may be tested severely if another outbreak is reported in 2019.

Nov. 26
Romaine industry adopts new labels, product to return to stores
By Chris Koger

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.

“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.”

The FDA is advising retailers to display signs about the origin of romaine products when they’re not individually packaged, such as bulk displays of unwrapped heads of romaine.

In their investigation, federal, state and local health agencies focused on Central Coast growing region of Northern and Central California. Since the report of the illnesses, mid-October to early November, harvest has shifted to other areas, including California’s Imperial Valley, the Yuma, Ariz., region and Florida.

Nov. 20
CDC warns against romaine in E. coli outbreak
By Chris Koger

National health authorities are telling consumers, retailers and restaurants to avoid romaine lettuce in yet another E. coli outbreak with cases in 11 states and Canada.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 32 people in the U.S. and 11 in Canada have been infected with the same E. coli 0157:H7 — and the DNA fingerprint is the same as the strain identified in a 2017 outbreak linked to romaine in Canada and to leafy greens in the U.S.

As in that outbreak, and a subsequent deadly E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from Yuma, Ariz., this year, no common grower, supplier, distributor or brand of romaine has been identified, so the CDC is advising against any of the lettuce being consumed.

Aug. 13
FDA considers cattle lot as romaine E. coli source
By Chris Koger

The Food and Drug Administration has reported that a cattle feedlot near an irrigation canal that delivers water to Yuma, Ariz., lettuce fields could be the source of E. coli found in the canal’s water.

The FDA reported the possibility of the cattle operation — known as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) — as a source of the E. coli linked to romaine lettuce in an Aug. 6 update on an outbreak that killed five people and sickened 200 people in 36 states.

In the update, the FDA notes its participation in the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force meetings July 31 and Aug. 1 in Yuma. During that meeting with California and Yuma growers and food safety leaders in the industry, the FDA shared some hypotheses on the cause of the outbreak.  The FDA “continues to consider that contaminated water coming into contact with produce, either through direct irrigation or other means, is a viable explanation for the pattern of contamination,” according to the update.

April 17
What you need to know about the outbreak linked to romaine
By Ashley Nickle

(The Packer’s most viewed article of 2018)

As companies wait for more information from the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration on the E. coli outbreak that has been ascribed to chopped romaine from Arizona in general rather than to a specific supplier, fresh produce industry associations are communicating what is currently known about the situation.

The United Fresh Produce Association, through vice president of food safety and technology Jennifer McEntire, issued a Q&A-style update to members on the topic April 16. The Packer also contacted Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Below are the latest updates on areas of interest related to the outbreak.

Why the CDC and the FDA issued an alert before determining the specific source of the illnesses:

The agencies informed produce groups about the initial alerts shortly before posting them April 13, and officials listened to industry concerns about a broad warning rather than a targeted one but decided they had to act on the information available, according to McEntire.

“FDA and CDC noted their concern with the high number of illnesses in a short time frame (the most they have seen in a long time) and the severity of illness and their concern that product could still be out there,” McEntire said.

The hospitalization rate was also a factor. The CDC reports it is currently at 65%, significantly higher than the normal rate of about 30%.

“They did not want to risk people continuing to eat affected product and becoming severely ill while the investigation continued,” McEntire said. “This is a devastating illness and they did what they felt was in the interest of public health.”

Consumer Reports has told people not to eat any romaine from any region, stating that consumers should not be expected to figure out where the chopped romaine comes from.

The produce industry was disappointed to see such a broad warning, Whitaker said.
McEntire said industry groups have contacted Consumer Reports to urge it to issue corrections on certain statements.


April 13
CDC, FDA sound alarm on chopped romaine from Yuma
By Ashley Nickle

The CDC and the FDA are advising consumers not to eat chopped romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Ariz. area — and retailers and restaurants not to sell or serve it — because of a possible connection to 35 E. coli cases in 11 states.

In a reminder of E. coli outbreaks in Canada and the U.S. that began in December and were blamed on romaine and leafy greens, respectively, no recall has been issued and no company or brand has been identified as the source.

According to an April 13 notice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 of 28 people interviewed for the investigation said they ate romaine in the week before they became ill.

 
Comments
Submitted by Fred Von Bargen on Tue, 01/01/2019 - 12:49

Thank you for recognizing the severity of the Foodborne illness related to romaine lettuce and made it your number one story for 2018. Those in the food industry must always assume that their family will be consuming the product they are producing and insist that only 100% of all products sold meet established safe food standards. It was those people who became ill, the famers who grew the product, the retail and restaurants who served the product, the retail stores who sold the product were all effected by the terrible two incidents. Unless I missed it. am still concerned if a program has been put in place to ever allow a repeat of these two disasters. While I am hesitant to advocate a federal government intervention, I will accept that if the industry can not assure the public of safe, wholesome and nutritious products. It is a New Year, lets make certain we have learned form the past year!

Submitted by Fred Von Bargen on Tue, 01/01/2019 - 12:49

Thank you for recognizing the severity of the Foodborne illness related to romaine lettuce and made it your number one story for 2018. Those in the food industry must always assume that their family will be consuming the product they are producing and insist that only 100% of all products sold meet established safe food standards. It was those people who became ill, the famers who grew the product, the retail and restaurants who served the product, the retail stores who sold the product were all effected by the terrible two incidents. Unless I missed it. am still concerned if a program has been put in place to ever allow a repeat of these two disasters. While I am hesitant to advocate a federal government intervention, I will accept that if the industry can not assure the public of safe, wholesome and nutritious products. It is a New Year, lets make certain we have learned form the past year!