Adam Bros. Farming recalled green and red leaf lettuce and cauliflower harvested Nov. 27-30 and distributed in the U.S. and Canada because it may be contaminated with E. coli. The company noted none of the recalled products tested positive for E. coli and no illnesses have been reported.
The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Dec. 13 that E. coli contamination was found in an irrigation reservoir on an Adam Bros. ranch in Santa Maria, California. However, the finding doesn't explain all 59 illnesses reported so far from 15 states, the agencies said, so their investigation is continuing. Scott Gottlieb, FDA commissioner, said the agency is working with Adam Bros. to determine how the contamination occurred and whether corrective actions are needed before the company's next growing season.
"As of Dec. 13, our investigation yielded records from five restaurants in four different states that have identified 11 different distributors, nine different growers, and eight different farms as potential sources of contaminated romaine lettuce," Gottlieb said in a release. "Currently, no single establishment is in common across the investigated supply chains. This indicates that although we have identified a positive sample from one farm to date, the outbreak may not be explained by a single farm, grower, harvester, or distributor."
The FDA has slightly revised its consumer recommendations about romaine lettuce and has removed from the warning list romaine from San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties in California — as long as it was harvested after Nov. 23. However, the agency advised consumers to avoid any romaine from Monterey, San Benito and Santa Barbara counties.
Separately, the FDA asked retailers, restaurants and other commercial outlets last month to voluntarily pull from the market and destroy any romaine lettuce just two days before Thanksgiving. The voluntary labeling scheme to indicate where romaine lettuce was grown and when it was harvested was announced late last month by federal food safety regulators and the fresh produce industry. The leafy green industry has struggled during the past year, with three outbreaks tied to E. coli.
In addition, grocers were faced with the decision of whether to discard products in inventory or hold onto them to see whether the FDA and CDC would scope out the exact source of the outbreak quick enough to potentially sell the products if unaffected. Most retailers, however, complied to the government's request to discard it. Food Marketing Institute also faced inquiries from grocery retailers on how to proceed.
"Every single retailer we've talked to, the losses are in the millions," Hillary Thesmar, senior vice president of food safety for FMI told Food Dive. "The economic impact is huge."
It's not clear whether putting labels on romaine lettuce alone will solve the problem, though. That's because while commercial growers have agreed to label the product and work together to improve tracking it through the supply chain, consumers may not know what they're looking for or where the problematic lettuce came from. Also, some romaine is sold in bulk, so retailers will have to post the source and harvest date in an easily visible place.
It's also worrisome that federal regulators need to continue investigating where the pathogen came from since E. coli contamination in sediment from one irrigation reservoir can't explain 59 illnesses and 23 hospitalizations in 15 states and the District of Columbia. There are also 28 illnesses in four Canadian provinces being linked to this outbreak, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, along with 10 hospitalizations.
The FDA said genetic analysis of the E. coli strains from the current outbreak is similar to those from the outbreak in the fall of 2017 that sickened U.S. and Canadian consumers. It was linked to leafy greens here and to romaine lettuce in Canada. However, the FDA noted there was no genetic link between this current outbreak and the E. coli one associated with romaine this past spring. It's increasingly likely that the current outbreak came from multiple farms, growers, harvesters, or distributors.
Irrigation water testing as required under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act — and delayed until at least 2022 by the FDA — seems like a good way to help limit future contamination of leafy greens. The FDA is instituting a new sampling and testing procedure for romaine lettuce to help ferret out contamination in the marketplace.
David Acheson, the FDA's former food safety czar who now runs his own firm to help clients reduce the risk of an outbreak, recently told Food Dive that while a practice like testing water for contaminants is effective, it's going to take more from everyone with a stake in produce to reduce the likelihood of another outbreak.
"We will never get a leafy green that we can guarantee is 100% free of pathogens 100% of the time," Acheson said. "It will never happen because of the nature of the product, so we need to put in control systems that are as good as we can afford ... and to continue to push the likelihood down."
These added steps are expensive, but recalls and ebbing consumer confidence in leafy greens are costlier still. Romaine sales have declined 13% for the year ending Nov. 24, according to Nielsen estimates, although growers and retailers of other kinds such as iceberg and Boston have benefited by an almost 170% leap in sales, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
Thorough and consistent testing by growers and the government could be one way to bring back faith in the safety of leafy greens — particularly in romaine lettuce, not to mention green and red leaf lettuce and cauliflower — before another potentially related illness outbreak occurs. Money talks and if sales continue to sputter, everyone with stake in lettuce or protecting those who eat it will feel a sense of urgency to do what they can to minimize the chance of another outbreak and uncover the cause of the current one.