Three weeks after declaring romaine lettuce was safe to eat again, federal health officials on Nov. 22 warned consumers, retailers and restaurants not to sell or eat any supplies of the green that originated from California’s Salinas Valley, citing a risk of E.coli contamination.
The authorities have also advised the public to forego eating any “salad products” from Missa Bay, a New Jersey food processor that voluntarily recalled 73,000 pounds of processed lettuce and meat items because a dangerous form of E.coli was found in supplies distributed in Maryland. Most of Missa’s products appear to be sold to supermarkets and other retailers.
Forty people in 16 states have already been sickened by E.coli 0157:H7 after consuming lettuce believed to come from Salinas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The California agricultural center is one of the nation’s major sources of romaine lettuce.
Distributors were asked to stop supplying any lettuce from the region for the remainder of the Salinas growing season.
Grocers, including San Antonio-based H-E-B and Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s, aren’t taking any chances. Both have issued voluntary recalls of products containing romaine from their stores.
“While no Trader Joe’s products have been linked to the outbreak, we will never leave to chance the safety of the products we offer,” according to an announcement on the retailer's website. “We have pulled from sale and disposed of all products containing romaine labeled as from Salinas, Calif.; Monterey; Northern Calif.; San Benito, Calif.; or USA growing regions.”
“We have a major challenge as an industry to find ways to prevent outbreaks such as this,” said Jennifer McEntire, VP of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C. “We’re pleased that the labeling by production region adopted after last year’s outbreak allowed the FDA to limit its advisory to one region.”
United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association established the Romaine Task Force at the request of FDA following the November 2018 E.coli O157:H7 outbreak involving romaine that sickened 32 people in 11 states. Labeling by production region was one outcome of the organizations’ joint effort.
“Shippers and processors are still able to supply romaine from other regions, and retailers can meet their customers’ needs. But preventing outbreaks in the first place has to be our 100% focus,” said McEntire. “It’s imperative that we drive toward fast electronic traceability from the point-of-sale to shorten outbreaks if they occur.”
The advisory comes just ahead of Thanksgiving, when salad is often a standard part of the traditional holiday meal. The warnings will likely prompt consumers to avoid any type of lettuce, as they did during past outbreaks involving romaine, said Michael Droke, a partner with the law firm Dorsey & Whitney. The practice specializes in agriculture and food-related legal issues.
“A warning like this, especially during the holiday week, will impact not only romaine but other leafy green vegetables such as spinach,” Droke said in a statement. “Retailers will be pulling romaine and possibly all other lettuce/leafy greens from their shelves (a process called quarantining).”
The November 2018 romaine recall was followed by warnings about the contamination of lettuce from Yuma, Ariz., in April and May 2018. A recall of romaine was also announced in 2017. Five people died and 200 reported symptoms of E.coli poisoning during the outbreak that triggered that recall.
Last week’s advisory followed an unusual announcement by health authorities on Oct. 31 that romaine lettuce was safe to eat again. The bulletin revealed that another outbreak of E.coli contamination had sickened 23 people in mid-September but appeared to be over. “We do not believe there is a current or ongoing risk to the public and we are not recommending the public avoid consuming romaine lettuce,” Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response for the Food and Drug Administration, said at the time.
Information about the Romaine Task Force, its report and recommendations can be found here.