The FDA is investigating an E. coli outbreak right now and if the food source turns out to be romaine lettuce no one should be surprised. Wedged between the Cyclospora season (May-August) and the peak months for Norovirus (December-March) comes the romaine E. coli season.
Leafy greens are a leading cause of E. coli outbreaks, with romaine claiming the top offender spot of the group. And research shows that romaine lettuce E. coli outbreaks often happen in the fall. For some reason, the survival rate of E. coli O157:H7 on cold-stored, packaged romaine harvested in the fall is significantly higher than when it is harvested in the spring.
Unfortunately, the survival rate for E. coli on packaged romaine ticks up just as the romaine growing season in coastal California is winding down. About 95 percent of the nation’s leafy greens are grown in Arizona and California, dividing the year between them. In November, production shifts from the Salinas/coastal California area to Yuma, AZ. In April, it shifts back to California.
So, when these fall outbreaks happen and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) traces the journey of the implicated lettuce from the point of sale back to the farm where it was grown, the fields are often empty.
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What is E. coli O157:H7?
E. coli O157: H7 is among a small group of E. coli serotypes that produce Shiga toxins which are poisonous to humans and can cause a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), other severe illnesses, and death. E. coli O157: H7 live in the intestines of ruminant animals, cattle are the primary reservoir.
Symptoms of an E. coli infection, which include abdominal cramps and diarrhea that can be bloody, usually develop within six to 72 hours of exposure.
Recent Romaine E. coli Season Outbreaks
The FDA is currently investigating an E. coli outbreak that includes 11 illnesses. While the agency works to identify the source of that outbreak, here is a look at romaine E. coli outbreaks that have occurred in the fall.
2017 Romaine/Leafy Greens E. coli Outbreak (fatal)
Between November 5, 2017, and December 12, 2017, 25 people who reported eating romaine lettuce at home and in prepared salads they purchased at grocery stores, restaurants, and fast-food chains developed E. coli infections. Nine of them were hospitalized, two developed HUS. One person died.
The FDA determined that the lettuce associated with the deadly 15-state outbreak originated from multiple farms in Arizona, California, and Mexico.
2018 Salinas-Grown Romaine E. coli Outbreak
An E. coli outbreak linked to Salinas, California-grown romaine lettuce sickened 62 people in 16 states. Some of the illnesses were linked to food served at restaurants. Twenty-five people were hospitalized, two of them with HUS.
At one point, the FDA announced that its traceback investigation from four restaurants in three different states implicated 10 different distributors, 12 different growers, and 11 different farms as potential sources of the contaminated lettuce. At one of the farms, Adam Bros. Farming Inc., in Santa Barbara County, the FDA found the outbreak strain in an agricultural water reservoir. However, the agency said not all of the illnesses could be attributed to lettuce from this farm.
2019 Outbreaks Linked to Salinas-Grown Romaine Lettuce
In the fall of 2019, several E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks were linked to romaine lettuce grown in Salinas. Together, they sickened a total of 188 people. Ninety-two people were hospitalized, 16 developed HUS. In a report published the following year, the FDA described them as outbreaks as A, B, and C.
This romaine E. coli outbreak, announced on November 20, 2019, sickened 167 people in 27 states. Eighty-five people were hospitalized, 15 developed HUS. Investigators discovered that this outbreak strain was linked to a 2018 Salinas-grown romaine outbreak and a 2017 outbreak linked to leafy greens.
One of the products implicated in this outbreak was the romaine lettuce in Ready Pac Bistro Chicken Caesar Salad. Another product that was found to contain the outbreak strain was Fresh Express Leafy Green Romaine.
On November 26, 2019, about a week after Outbreak A was announced, the King County Health Department in Washington State announced an E. coli outbreak linked to leafy greens sold at Evergreens restaurants Investigators determined that the leafy greens which sickened 11 people hospitalizing three of them, were grown in Salinas.
On December 9, 2019, a five-state E. coli outbreak linked to Fresh Express Sunflower Crisp Chopped Salad Kits was announced. The outbreak, linked to romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, sickened 10 people hospitalizing four of them. One person developed HUS.
The 2020 “Unknown Source” Trio of Outbreaks
Between October 28, 2020, and November 10, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced three E. coli outbreaks with romaine as a suspected source. But officially these outbreaks were called Unknown Source 1, 2, and 3.
Unknown Source 1, (fatal)
The 12-state Unknown Source 1 outbreak sickened 32 people between June 6, 2020, and October 25, 2020. Fifteen people were hospitalized, one with HUS. One person died. The outbreak strain was linked to the deadly 2018 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, AZ.
Unknown Source 2 Leafy Greens
The source of this outbreak, which sickened 40 people, was eventually identified as leafy greens. Twenty of the patients sickened between August 10 and October 31, were hospitalized.
The E. coli strain linked to this outbreak matched the strain linked to three 2019 outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce grown in Salinas.
The FDA was unable to identify a specific type or brand of leafy green. The agency identified several farms of interest, but no single ranch was a common source of the implicated leafy greens.
Unknown Source 3
From September 2, 2020, to November 6, 2020, this 9-state outbreak sickened 18 people hospitalizing six of them. The outbreak strain was identified in a sample of Tanimura & Antle romaine lettuce in a single-head package. But the FDA said it was unable to determine if people got sick from eating the contaminated romaine lettuce so the name of this outbreak remains Unknown Source 3.
Experienced E. coli Lawyers
Pritzker Hageman E. coli lawyers have represented clients in every major E. coli outbreak in the U.S. If you would like a free consultation with an experienced E. coli lawyer, please contact the Pritzker Hageman E. coli Legal Team. You can reach us by calling 1-888-377-8900, sending a text to 612-261-0856, or by completing the form below. There is no obligation and you don’t pay us unless we win.