With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) having narrowed down the origin of contaminated romaine lettuce, experts urge consumers to be vigilant in determining the source of any lettuce they purchase.
“The CDC states that if the origin is not labeled then you should err on the safe side and not consume the lettuce,” said Virginia Tech consumer food safety specialist Renee Boyer.
Earlier this week, federal health officials announced that romaine lettuce is safe to eat as long as it's not from California’s Central Coast growing region. Stores and distributors have been urged to label where the lettuce is from as a precaution.
“The issue is that the origin of most lettuce is not labeled,” said Boyer. “The most common situation where you would find it labeled would be if it is sold in bags. Lettuces sold out of a bag can sometimes have the origin labeled on the tie that holds the lettuce together, but this is less common.”
“If in doubt, the consumer should be able to ask the produce manager where the produce originated. Most chains will be diligent and not put lettuce on the shelf unless they know that it is not from this region,” said Boyer.
FDA, romaine lettuce industry agree on labeling
The FDA recently participated in discussions with the major producers and distributors of romaine lettuce in the U.S. and with the major trade associations representing the produce industry regarding product labeling and dating to assure consumers that any romaine lettuce that will come onto the market is not associated with the current outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. The labeling will identify the origin of the romaine based on harvest region, along with the date of harvest. This can improve the ability of the FDA to provide more targeted information to consumers in the event of a future outbreak of illness. The FDA also has commitments from the romaine lettuce industry that such labeling will continue into the future and become the standard for their products.
In addition, the leafy greens industry has agreed to establish a task force to find solutions for long term labeling of romaine lettuce and other leafy greens for helping to identify products and to put in place standards for traceability of product. The task force will also examine information from this outbreak to identify measures that led to its occurrence and how to prevent ongoing safety problems with romaine lettuce. One outcome could be to extend the commitment for labeling for origin and date of harvest to other leafy greens.
FDA: Hydroponically- and greenhouse-grown romaine lettuce safe
The FDA also issued a statement saying that "romaine lettuce that was harvested outside of the Central Coast growing regions of northern and central California does not appear to be related to the current outbreak. Hydroponically- and greenhouse-grown romaine also does not appear to be related to the current outbreak. There is no recommendation for consumers or retailers to avoid using romaine harvested from these sources."
Following the news of the outbreak having been narrowed down, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture reminds consumers and retailers "that romaine lettuce grown in New Jersey can be purchased with confidence. Consumers should make sure that any romaine they buy is clearly labeled as to where it was produced."
Canadian indoor grower: "entire crop snapped up"
To date 22 people have fallen ill in Canada from E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce, including four cases in Ontario, 17 in Quebec and one in New Brunswick.
Opaskwayak Cree Nation LED Smart Farm operations manager Stephanie Cook told CBC News a little more than 2,500 heads of romaine lettuce will be ready for consumption next week, but before they're even ready to harvest, the entire crop has already been snapped up.
"As soon as that whole E. coli thing came out I had people coming into the plant lining up and reserving romaine lettuce for their staff parties, Christmas parties coming up," said Cook. "Within three days all that lettuce was spoken for."
Now that the source of the outbreak has been narrowed down, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is advising distributors, importers, restaurants, retailers, and institutions not to distribute, import, sell, serve, or use romaine lettuce and products containing romaine lettuce harvested in parts of California (2018 growing season) identified in the USFDA's statement due to potential contamination with E. coli O157.