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Romaine and E.coli: What can we do?

By Annalisa Hultberg

Produce safety is again in the national spotlight, as a multistate outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7 illnesses have been linked to romaine lettuce. At least 43 people have been sickened from 12 states, according to the most recent outbreak update from the CDC. 16 people have been hospitalized, and 1 person developed HUS from the infection, a serious illness that can result in kidney failure.

The lettuce has been traced back to Central Coastal growing regions of northern and central California. After initially issuing a blanket warning to not consume any romaine at all, the CDC has since narrowed this warning to not consume romaine from the specific growing area of the Central Coastal region of California.  

Earlier this year, another E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with romaine from the Yuma, AZ growing region sickened at least 210 people and caused 5 deaths, including 2 in Minnesota. While the two outbreaks are not related, there may be similarities. The outbreak earlier this summer was traced back to contaminated irrigation water. Similarly, a widespread E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 2006 on fresh spinach was traced back to irrigation water contaminated with feces from cattle or wild deer. This current outbreak might also be traced back to contaminated irrigation water, although it will take some time before we know the source.
Thoughts from a local greens grower
Revol Greens, a greenhouse greens grower in Owatonna, MN said that the outbreak, right around the Thanksgiving holiday, was and continues to be a challenge. Here is a short Q and A with Brenden Krieg, sales manager for Revol.

Q. Have you felt any impacts from the romaine E. coli outbreak?

Yes, immediately we had to change our mixes to remove all romaine. There was a huge demand for spring mix without romaine immediately. We were able to change our growing mix quickly, so the impact was relatively small for us.

Obviously this recall hurts the industry and it has a bad impact on the long term consumption of romaine, but it increases demand from both consumers and restaurants looking for other products. People are asking more questions, like how and where are their leafy greens grown.  So for most local farms, long term, it’s not a positive, but it does highlight the benefit of local and fresh.  

Q. What do you do to keep your greens as safe as possible?

Water testing is the most important thing we do specifically for E. coli. We send our water samples in monthly to an independent lab and we do our own internal testing as well.  Hygiene and handwasing is huge, and we always train new employees. We don’t have a lot of contact with our product, as a lot is cut by machine. We are vigilant about mice and other animals in the growing areas, and use a pest control company that knows how to work with farms. We make sure we have a policy to not work when we are sick, and things like that.


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