California may be the source of the latest romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak

Contaminated romaine lettuceNBC Newsquoted the FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said that California may be the source of romaine lettuce outbreak due to E. coli and that the E. coli strain of the current outbreak is very similar to an outbreak of E. coli that killed one person and made at least 25 people ill in 2017.  “The timing is exactly the same. So it’s likely associated with end-of-season harvests in California, where most of the romaine that is currently on the market is from.” The FDA said that California may be the source of romaine lettuce outbreak due to E. coli that have made 32 people sick in 11 states in the US and 22 cases in Canada.

Another indication that the source of the outbreak is in California is the fact that of the 32 cases, 10 were based in California – nine of them in Los Angeles County.

“I think we are going to be in a position to isolate the region soon. There is some lettuce coming in from Mexico but most of what’s on the market are the result of end-of-the-season harvesting coming out of California right now.”

Dr. Laura Gieraltowski, leader of the foodborne outbreak response team at the CDC said that although this is the second romaine outbreak this year, it is not clear whether romaine lettuce itself is more likely to be contaminated than other vegetables. “It could have to do with the way the lettuce is shaped. The head of romaine lettuce is open and may be contaminated water can get into it more than into a head of iceberg lettuce or cabbage that is in a ball.”

Contamination can also be due to repackaged before it ships out to grocery stores and restaurants.

“Is romaine somehow riskier? We don’t think so,” Gottlieb said. “We think it is probably related more to the way that it is packaged.” So pieces of a single contaminated head of romaine could be chopped up and spread through a number of packages.

Scott Horsfall, chief executive of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, an industry group authorized by the state to enforce produce safety rules said that no lettuce was being produced in the Yuma region during the current outbreak. He continued “It’s going to have a big impact on the industry, obviously,” Horsfall said. “It’s unfortunate they don’t have information that would allow them to identify a shipper or a farm because then you could have a recall and be done.”

Why such a strong alarm? The outbreak is caused by a particularly nasty strain of E. coli that can lead to kidney failure, in some cases. Currently, 32 people got sick in the US, of whom 13 have been hospitalized. In Canada, of the reported 18 cases, six people have been hospitalized.

Contamination source

Wild animals may wander through the fields; irrigation water might come from contaminated streams. Contamination can be further increased when produce is harvested and passes through the processing machinery to clean, trim, chop and package it.

Gottlieb said that the source of the outbreak is not yet known and tracking it down is time-consuming and might take a while, as a result, the FDA has not announced a mandatory recall yet. But he said some growers and distributors were planning to voluntarily recall their romaine products.

Why do we see more food recalls?

Both the FDA and CDC say that’s the reason for the increase in recalls is not because more food is being contaminated. “The food supply in the U.S. is one of the safest in the world,” Gieraltowski said. FDA and CDC are better at linking the food poisoning cases that occur each year.

“It’s not that there are more outbreaks. It’s that we are identifying more outbreaks,” Gottlieb said.

“A lot of what we identify now would have been random people showing up at their doctor’s office with a gastrointestinal illness that we would never have associated with a common etiology (cause),” Gottlieb added. Genetic fingerprinting has changed that.

The next step for FDA is speeding up the slow process of tracking the sources of the outbreaks using better technology to keep tabs on food as it moves from farms to distributors and to stores, Gottlieb said.

The CDC estimates that microorganisms in food make 48 million Americans sick every year — that’s one out of six people. About 128,000 are made sick enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

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