Just before Thanksgiving, the CDC and FDA announced an ongoing outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 associated with romaine lettuce and warned consumers that romaine lettuce was unsafe to eat in any form. The agencies also took the unusual step of directing retailers, restaurants, and other food service operators not to serve or sell romaine lettuce until further notice, no matter where or when the lettuce was grown. To date, forty-three people have been confirmed with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7. The illnesses have been reported in 12 states, with onset dates ranging from October 8, 2018 to October 31, 2018. There have been 16 people hospitalized and, fortunately, no deaths.
As the investigation continued over the Thanksgiving holiday, investigators were able to narrow the source of the contaminated romaine lettuce to the Central Coast regions of central and northern California, which grow romaine during summer months. Thus, given the dates associated with illnesses and the findings of the traceback investigation, it now appears the outbreak is related to “end of season” romaine lettuce harvested from the implicated areas.
As of the latest update, no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand of romaine lettuce has been identified, and FDA investigators are still working to identify the exact source of the outbreak. They are, however, sufficiently confident that they have lifted the nationwide moratorium on romaine sales and consumption. Moving forward, any romaine lettuce for sale will most likely come from the winter growing regions, which include California’s Imperial Valley, the (Yuma) Arizona desert region, Florida, and Mexico.
In perhaps the biggest development, many romaine lettuce products will now be harvested and distributed with voluntary labeling which identifies the harvest date and location by region. In particular, following discussions with FDA, many large growers and processors have agreed to:
- Clearly and prominently label all individually packaged romaine products to identify growing region and harvest date for romaine; and
- Clearly and prominently label at the point of sale the growing region when it is not possible for romaine lettuce suppliers to label the package (e.g. individual unwrapped whole heads of romaine lettuce available in retail stores).
FDA has stated that it hopes growers, processors, distributors and retailers will join the agency in its our effort to protect consumers by applying these voluntary labeling recommendations to their products. With that said, while it remains unclear how long it will be before these labels are in widespread use, CDC is nevertheless advising consumers and retailers not buy, serve, sell, or eat romaine lettuce unless it is labeled with a harvest growing region.
Of further note, hydroponically or greenhouse-grown romaine lettuce has not been linked to this or any of the other romaine-related outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 during the previous 12 months.