The romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak has expanded to include 43 people in 12 states, according to a statement issued today by FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. Sixteen people have been hospitalized. Twenty-two cases in Canada have also been reported.
The U.S. total, current as of today, represents an increase of 11 cases and an expansion to one additional state since the last update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) six days ago. But it’s important to note that symptoms for the most recent U.S. case began on October 31, 2018, meaning the increase reflects a lag in reporting time of illnesses that occurred in October rather than an increase that happened during the week of Thanksgiving.
This reporting lag time is a feature of every outbreak investigation, but the end of October is significant for another reason in this one. It’s the time of year when the bulk of our nation’s romaine production shifts from California to Arizona. And, according to Gottlieb, the FDA determined over the Thanksgiving holiday that the outbreak is related to “end of season” romaine lettuce from the Central Coast growing regions of central and northern California.
Deadly E. coli Outbreak
Some of the romaine Americans eat during the winter is imported from Mexico or grown in Florida, the desert region of California or a smattering of other states. But most of it is produced in Yuma, Arizona growing region which was linked to a different romaine E. coli outbreak earlier this year. More than 200 people were sickened in that outbreak. Five of them died.
The FDA was able to determine the region where that contaminated romaine was grown, but it was never able to identify a common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand of romaine lettuce in that outbreak. So, the CDC and FDA just advised the public to avoid consuming lettuce grown in Yuma. The problem was “state of origin” information doesn’t appear on all forms of romaine sold at grocery stores. And things got more confusing when some stores issued recalls and some romaine producers issued statements saying their lettuce was not implicated in the outbreak, including one company based in Yuma, AZ.
Health officials say DNA “fingerprinting” shows the E. coli linked to this outbreak is not the same as the E. coli responsible for the Yuma outbreak. But it does seem to be linked to a leafy greens E. coli outbreak in the U.S. and Canada during the fall of 2017. The case count by state is as follows: CA (11), CT (1), IL (2), MA (2), MD (1), MI (7), NH (2), NJ (9), NY (5), OH (1), RI (1), WI (1).
With this outbreak, when the FDA is (so far) again unable to identify a common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand of romaine lettuce, the agencies took a different approach. They did a market withdrawal of all romaine telling consumers, restaurant and retailers to throw away all that they had.
“The FDA believes it was critically important to have a “clean break” in the romaine supply available to consumers in the U.S. in order to purge the market of potentially contaminated romaine lettuce related to the current outbreak. This appears to have been accomplished through the market withdrawal request of Nov. 20, 2018,” Gottlieb said in the statement.
In addition, the industry has agreed to use labeling that will identify where the lettuce was grown and when it was harvested. “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. 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,” Gottlieb said in the statement.
E. coli Lawyers Investigate
The E. coli attorneys at Pritzker Hageman, who represent clients nationwide, are investigating this outbreak. For a free consultation about an E. coli illness or death associated with contaminated romaine lettuce, use this online form or call toll-free 1(888) 377-8900. There is no obligation.