FDA continues probe of tainted romaine Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

FDA continues probe of tainted romaine

Arizona farm linked, but officials investigate full supply chain

Federal investigators have identified one Yuma, Ariz., farm in some cases of E. coli in foodservice romaine lettuce, but they are looking at the entire supply chain for the sources that have led to at least 98 illnesses across 22 states.

The Centers for Disease Control reported Friday that 98 people in 22 states became ill between March 13 and April 20. The CDC said that 64, or 96 percent, of the 67 people it interviewed reported eating romaine lettuce in the week before their illnesses began. 

The Food and Drug Administration has identified Harrison Farms of Yuma as the grower and sole source of the whole-head romaine lettuce that sickened several people in an Alaska correctional facility, but it has not determined where in the supply chain the contamination occurred. 

“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 the Alaska correctional facility where it was served,” the FDA said.

The FDA said it was working to identify multiple distribution channels that could explain the entirety of the outbreak.

The multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 led the agencies to urge home and restaurant customers to avoid romaine altogether a week after the initial reports.

The FDA said the identified farm harvested romaine March 5-16, which would now be well past its 21-day shelf life.

The 98 E. coli cases identified so far have been spread across these states: Alaska (8), Arizona (5), California (16), Colorado (2), Connecticut (2), Georgia (1), Idaho (10), Illinois (1), Louisiana (1), Michigan (3), Mississippi (1), Missouri (1), Montana (8), New Jersey (7), New York (2), Ohio (3), Pennsylvania (18), South Dakota (1), Tennessee (1), Virginia (1), Washington (5) and Wisconsin (1).

“Most people reported eating a salad at a restaurant, and romaine lettuce was the only common ingredient identified among the salads eaten,” the FDA said. “The restaurants reported using bagged, chopped romaine lettuce to make salads. Traceback does not indicate that Harrison Farms is the source of the chopped romaine that sickened these people.”

The FDA said it had identified dozens of other fields as possible sources.

The symptoms of Shiga toxin-producing (STEC) E. coli infections vary, the agencies said, but they often include severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. If there is fever, it is usually less than 101 degrees. Most people get better within five to seven days. About 5 percent to 10 percent of those who are diagnosed with STEC infection develop a potentially life-threatening complication, known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS.

Of the 98 people sickened in this outbreak, 46 have been hospitalized, higher than usual in the Shiga toxin cases, said Bill Marler, managing partner of the Seattle, Wash.-based Marler Clark food-safety law firm.

“This is a shockingly large percentage of hospitalized and HUS cases,” Marler said in a statement. “It underscores the need for the produce industry to do a better job of traceability so these outbreaks are identified and stopped as soon as possible.”

The Marler Clark firm said it has been contacted by more than 50 people in the romaine outbreak, and seven of those had contracted HUS.

Just Salad, a 34-unit chain based in New York City, had advised its customers that its restaurants in Chicago, New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia were watching the sources of their greens closely.

“Our romaine in all markets is grown in California, where there have not been any reports of contaminated lettuce,” Just Salad’s said in an advisory. “Please rest assured that our romaine is safe to consume. We will be adding Iceberg to the menu for those that would like another lettuce option.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

TAGS: Food Trends
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