Tom Karst mug
( The Packer staff )

About a week ago, my son and daughter-in-law asked me, “Is it okay to start eating romaine again?”

If anyone should know, in their thinking, I was the one.

That made me smile. Aw, shucks. My decades at The Packer notwithstanding, I’m no food safety expert, but....of course, eat romaine. I mean, think of all the millions of lettuce servings dished out every day and, of course, the product that caused the outbreak is likely long gone from the supply chain.  And was it romaine, after all?

It stinks that the fresh produce industry doesn’t have a “kill step” to remove any threat of contamination by pathogens. But it doesn’t, so any message to consumers in the midst of an outbreak, or even weeks after, is a nuanced one.

The desire for closure on the investigation is palpable. Yet no one wants the “case is closed” before getting a verdict on what was responsible.

The latest CDC update was Jan. 10, when the agency said:

On January 10, 2018, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported that an outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7 infections (STEC O157:H7) they had identified was linked to romaine lettuce appears to be over.

In the United States, CDC, several states, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continue to investigate a multistate outbreak of 24 STEC O157:H7 infections in 15 states. Since CDC’s initial media statement on December 28, seven more illnesses have been added to this investigation. The last reported illness started on December 12, 2017.

The likely source of the outbreak in the United States appears to be leafy greens, but officials have not specifically identified a type of leafy greens eaten by people who became ill.  Leafy greens typically have a short shelf life, and since the last illness started a month ago, it is likely that contaminated leafy greens linked to this outbreak are no longer available for sale. Canada identified romaine lettuce as the source of illnesses there, but the source of the romaine lettuce or where it became contaminated is unknown.

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) showed that the STEC O157:H7 strain from ill people in the United States is closely related genetically to the STEC O157:H7 strain from ill people in Canada. WGS data alone are not sufficient to prove a link; health officials rely on other sources of data, such as interviews from ill people, to support the WGS link. This investigation is ongoing. Because CDC has not identified a specific type of leafy greens linked to the U.S. infections, and because of the short shelf life of leafy greens, CDC is not recommending that U.S. residents avoid any particular food at this time.

Later on Jan. 10,  Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., wrote a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration on their struggles to deal with the E. coli outbreak responsible for 65 infections and 2 deaths in the U.S. and Canada.

“While I welcome tonight’s updates from the CDC and the FDA, the 7 additional reported cases of people who have fallen ill underscore the importance of completing this investigation in a timely fashion. CDC must proceed with their investigation quickly to determine the source of this outbreak, and FDA should work hand-in-hand with them to prevent further outbreaks. The American people should not be left wondering for weeks on end if the food they are eating is safe.”

TK: Wondering about the safety of U.S. food is a road to oblivion - that much is true. But even though Consumer Reports may still suggest avoiding romaine until the feds nail down the source of the outbreak, the CDC and I aren’t advising kith and kin to avoid romaine or any other particular food.