In the midst of an E. coli outbreak that has sickened 53 people in 16 states, sending 31 to the hospital, grocery retailers are getting rid of romaine lettuce products in their stores. According to Consumer Reports, this action comes after federal food safety warnings about contaminated chopped romaine lettuce.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chopped romaine lettuce came from Yuma, Arizona, where most of the product is grown from November to March. The CDC advised consumers to avoid all packaged romaine that comes from the Yuma area. However, the agency hasn't yet identified a common grower, supplier, distributor or brand.
Because most consumers don't know if their romaine lettuce came from Arizona, Consumer Reports suggests people avoid all romaine lettuce sold in stores and restaurants, along with bagged romaine lettuce mixes and prepared salads, just to be on the safe side.
In a joint statement issued last week, a coalition of five produce industry groups said they were working to identify the source of the outbreak. They also said the government's warning only applied to chopped, bagged romaine grown in the Yuma area and not lettuce grown in California or elsewhere.
"Leafy greens food-safety programs in both California and Arizona are the most rigorous in today’s produce industry," the groups said. "Both programs include mandatory farm food safety practices, and frequent government audits to ensure those practices are being followed."
The United Fresh Produce Association noted that romaine production had relocated from Yuma to Salinas, California, for the the year and that April 15 was the last date romaine lettuce grown in Yuma had been shipped around the country. However, the contaminated product could potentially still be available in stores and restaurants.
Despite rigorous food safety programs and protocols, pathogens can still slip through and contaminate fresh produce, which is why retailers are pulling romaine lettuce products from their stores and making sure consumers aren't at risk. A recall can cost a business $10 million in lost sales, direct costs and reputation damage, and no reputable business wants to risk even a single illness if it can be helped.
Contamination of leafy greens can occur in numerous ways. These include contaminated water applied during growing or harvesting, animals getting into the fields, birds flying overhead, and workers without adequate bathroom or hand-washing facilities. E. coli contamination, which can cause severe illness or even death, cannot be washed off fresh produce. Sufficient cooking will kill the pathogen, but most lettuce is eaten raw.
The Food Safety Modernization Act's produce rule sets standards for production, harvesting and handling of fruits and vegetables to keep contamination levels as low as possible. However, enforcement on produce farms just began in January of this year, and requirements concerning water quality standards haven't kicked in yet.
Fresh produce, particularly leafy greens, is a major cause of foodborne illness. While food safety regulators continue to track down how the current E. coli outbreak got started, it's a good bet that producers will be looking to take the lessons learned back to the fields and packing houses to make sure that future problems don't emerge from their operations.
Grocery stores nationwide currently have large empty spaces in their produce cases since bagged salad mixes may contain the affected romaine lettuce. In cases of recalls, grocery stores are prepared to jump into action, quickly pulling potentially contaminated items from the shelves and blocking the UPC codes of affected products from scanning at checkout. Many stores also use loyalty card data to inform consumers who have purchased affected items.
And while empty shelves don't look good, many retailers are using signs to let shoppers know why their salad selection is lacking. Grocery retailers agree: Protecting the public from products that could make them sick is more important than the appearance of full shelves and a bountiful selection.