What is happening?
On April 13th, the FDA and the CDC issued statements warning consumers, retailers, and restaurants to avoid all romaine originating from the Yuma region in Arizona because of a possible connection to E. coli outbreaks that have been occurring for the past weeks. As of late April, the FDA was still working to resolve the outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce that has been steadily spreading throughout the nation. At that time, the Food and Drug Administration was attempting to trace and determine the origin of the outbreak, sorting through thousands of records and looking into multiple chains of distribution.
Though the investigation is ongoing, the outbreak continues to worsen, with more cases and hospitalizations being reported as the weeks go on. This week, the first death linked to the contaminated romaine was reported, with information about the occurrence included in the Center for Disease Control’s update on Wednesday.
The CDC’s update also included the latest data of the reach of the disease, with 121 people afflicted in 25 states as of last Friday, when Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Utah were added to the list of those affected by the outbreak.4 Currently, the states with the highest concentrations of cases are Pennsylvania, Idaho, and New Jersey.
How did it start?
Contaminated leafy greens, specifically these concerns about romaine, have been the subject of investigation since last year. In December, E. coli outbreaks in Canada and the United States were linked to romaine and leafy greens, but no recalls were issued and no company or brand was named as the original source.
For the current outbreak of E.. coli plaguing romaine-consumers, the starting dates of reported illnesses start back in March, ranging from the 22 to the 31.2 The FDA and CDC issued the warning about romaine from Yuma, Arizona as the primary suspect in the romaine investigation, and the CDC has specified that the warning does not apply to all romaine, “only to product from the Yuma growing region.”
Though most of the contaminated product is probably out of stores by now, given romaine’s short shelf-life, the CDC recommends that consumers do not buy more romaine unless they can confidently confirm that it is not from the Yuma growing region.2 “Consumers have been advised to throw away any chopped romaine in their homes and to not buy more unless they can confirm it is not from Yuma.”
The desire for the resolution of the investigation is nearly tangible, but would certainly be remiss before the FDA and the CDC can give the public a verdict on what was responsible.3 Perhaps best explained by Tom Karst, writer for The Packer, “It stinks that the fresh produce industry doesn’t have a “kill step” to remove any threat of contamination by pathogens. But it doesn’t, so any message to consumers in the midst of an outbreak, or even weeks after, is a nuanced one.”
Consumer safety is, of course, the priority. Unfortunately, there has been a deluge of misinformation surrounding the details of the outbreak. As stated by Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole Food Co., “We are 100% focused on safe product first, but there has been a great deal of incorrect and misinformation circulating throughout consumer media…Numerous stories have erroneously reported a recall around romaine and more reports that any and all romaine is tainted…Although romaine from Yuma has not been shipped for weeks, some retailers have removed all product containing romaine from their shelves — thereby exacerbating the confusion.”
While it makes sense to be overly cautious rather than under, misinformation can prompt counterproductive actions that require attention and energy that may be better spent on the investigation of this case, as well as the prevention of cases to come. In the midst of investigations, Consumer Reports advised its readers to avoid all romaine, even though at the time the CDC and FDA stated it could not identify the source of the illnesses.2 “A significant amount of time and effort has to be diverted to answering copious questions from customers and consumers.”
Our advice? If you don’t know where your romaine has been, don’t eat it. Keep an eye out for more CDC updates and keep your body safe, and be sure to ask where your food was sourced before you buy.