California likely the source of latest Romaine E. coli outbreak, says FDA chief

November 21 , 2018

California may be the source of Romaine lettuce blamed in an outbreak of E. coli infections that has made 32 people sick in 11 U.S. states and Canada, the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported said on Wednesday.

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have told consumers to throw away any Romaine they may already have purchased. 

In addition, restaurants should not serve it, stores should not sell it, and people should not buy it, no matter where or when the lettuce was grown, and no matter if it is chopped, whole head or part of a mix.

This outbreak is very similar to an outbreak of E. coli that killed one person and made at least 25 people ill last year, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said, according to NBC News. That outbreak was traced to leafy green vegetables but not to romaine lettuce specifically.

“The strain that caused that outbreak is very similar to the one that’s causing this outbreak and 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,” Gottlieb was quoted as saying.

“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 is the result of end-of-the-season harvesting coming out of California right now.”

This is the second E. coli outbreak linked to Romaine lettuce so far in 2018, following an outbreak that sickened more than 190 people and killed five at the beginning of the year.  

Although this is the second Romaine-linked outbreak this year, it is not clear whether Romaine lettuce itself is more likely to be contaminated than other vegetables, said Dr. Laura Gieraltowski, leader of the foodborne outbreak response team at the CDC.

“It’s something we’ve been asking,” she was quoted as saying.

“It could have to do with the way the lettuce is shaped. (A head of) romaine lettuce is kind of open and maybe contaminated water can get into it more than into a head of iceberg lettuce or cabbage that is in a ball.”

While it may seem that there have been more food recalls lately, both the FDA and CDC say that’s not because more food is being contaminated. 

“It’s not that there are more outbreaks. It’s that we are identifying more outbreaks,” Gottlieb was quoted as saying.

“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.

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