If it’s starting to feel like Romaine E. coli Outbreak is the title of a neverending story, there’s a good reason. Each fall since 2017, an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown in California has caused illnesses in multiple states. Each time these outbreaks occur, federal officials conduct an investigation. And each time they end the investigation saying they were “unable to identify a common grower, supplier or distributor.”

What we know now that we weirdly didn’t know until a couple of months ago is that genetic tests show that all of these outbreaks were caused by the same strain of E. coli. Meaning they all originated from the same source. It’s just that after three years, 225 illnesses and one death we still don’t know what that source is.

The current mystery romaine E. coli outbreak has sickened 138 people in 25 states. Thirteen of them have an E. coli-related form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). And, it’s worth bearing in mind, that these three outbreaks aren’t the only recent E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce.

In the first half of 2018, an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, AZ sickened 210 people killing five of them. And right now there’s an ongoing E. coli outbreak, running alongside the ongoing mystery romaine outbreak, that’s linked to Fresh Express Sunflower Crisp Chopped Salad Kits which contain romaine lettuce grown in California. This product is also linked to an outbreak in Canada where a recall was issued.  Fresh Express did not issue a recall in the U.S.

Back on December 9, 2019, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the Fresh Express outbreak, it said tests were ongoing to determine which ingredient in the salad was contaminated with E. coli. No word on that yet.

However, in its last update about the mystery romaine outbreak on December 19, 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said state health officials in Wisconsin had found the outbreak strain in an unopened bag of Fresh Express romaine lettuce they collected from an ill person’s home and that the label on the bag said the romaine was grown in Salinas. Again, Fresh Express did not issue a recall.

Although the E. coli strain in the bag of Fresh Express romaine is different than the mystery E. coli outbreak strain, it turns out the grower supplied romaine linked to two other outbreaks the FDA is investigating namely the Fresh Express Sunflower Crisp E. coli outbreak and an outbreak in the Seattle area linked to salads served at Evergreens restaurants.

In that same December 19, update, the FDA said that its staff was working with the CDC and California state health officials on a common farm that had been identified and they were trying to identify factors that could have led to E. coli contamination on the ranches operated by this grower.
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“Results of these tests could hold the key to a years-long mystery, but either way it is incumbent on these agencies to release the name of this grower and the brand names affected so that consumers can make informed choices about their romaine purchases,” said E. coli lawyer Fred Pritzker whose law firm Pritzker Hageman represent clients sickened by contaminated food.

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