What Does the Romaine Lettuce Scare Tell Us About Food Safety?

by Terry Bryant

The source of the fatal toxic strain of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce in the spring of 2018 continues to elude scientists and public health officials. So far, it has killed one person and sickened 172, in 32 states. Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7, which has caused kidney failure in some patients, is the specific pathogen behind the latest outbreak. Just recently, the CDC stopped advising consumers to throw away romaine lettuce if they cannot confirm where it’s from.

Early in the outbreak, public health officials were able to identify the general source as the Yuma, Arizona, region. Unlike products such as flour, lettuce’s shelf life is remarkably short – no more than a few weeks. Opportunities to test these crops are quite limited. In addition, detailed reporting which tracks produce across the entire supply chain, from growing fields to your supermarket, have yet to be fully established. This makes the current ability to focus on specific lots of any leafy vegetables quite challenging.

This is one reason why – as the romaine-related outbreak entered its second month – the contamination source itself remained unidentified. The “usual suspects” include Yuma’s lettuce fields, water sources, harvesting equipment, processing plants, and produce distribution networks.

This has been the largest E. coli infestation in the American food chain since 2006, when tainted spinach sickened around 200 people across 26 states. The obstacles to tracing the romaine E. coli outbreak amplify the vulnerabilities in monitoring fresh produce.

Ultimately, the full measure of the outbreak will not be known. Usually only the sickest patients seek medical help. The CDC estimates that for every case reported to authorities, 20 to 30 more people fell ill from the same strain.

Public Health Shifting Gears to Offer Better Protection – Eventually

Complicating this particular investigation is the fact that the romaine can originate from a variety of farms and be commingled at various distribution points along the supply chain, a common problem throughout the fresh produce distribution network. In the past, several types of bagged lettuce products were found to contain multiple types of pathogenic bacteria, because the content vegetables originated from several different portions of a general growing region and were then mixed together.

The federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed seven years ago to prevent such outbreaks — or at least help public health officials to quickly respond and shut them down. But industry compliance costs, other implementation challenges, and the difficulty of training tens of thousands of farmers and facility operators have produced several delays in full implementation.

Other FSMA-related initiatives have been established to make the cultivation, distribution, and sale of organic foods in the U.S. safer. The Sanitary Transportation of Food (STF) rule sets safety standards to minimize risk during the transportation of food and beverages that could threaten safety. Areas addressed include proper refrigeration of food and the suitable cleaning of transportation vehicles between loads. Corporate food growers and handlers had to be in compliance by April 2017. Smaller businesses had until April 2018.

Leafy green vegetables, like spinach (recalled in October 2017) and the romaine lettuce responsible for the latest outbreak, are often eaten raw, making it more likely that a dangerous listeria or E. coli strain of bacteria will cause consumers illness, and even death. If you believe you or a member of your family has eaten romaine lettuce – or any food product – that made you sick, we at Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law are here to help you anytime, 24/7. Contact us now to arrange a free consultation.