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Romaine lettuce harvest in California USDA

Lettuce romaine calm (not)

I have a lot of questions, but no solid answers.

There is something dreadfully (deadly) wrong in the Salinas Valley of California.

Two more outbreaks this fall related to E. coli O157:H7 contaminated romaine lettuce grown in that region, reminding me of the huge outbreak in 2006 when I was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Same region, same bacteria, but it was baby spinach in 2006, not romaine.

One of the glaring differences between now and then is that thanks to great epidemiologic investigation aided by the relatively new, at the time, PFGE, the source was quickly identified and consumers were alerted on what actions were necessary to protect themselves and their families.

The September outbreak was kept a secret for over six weeks by the FDA and CDC, and only announced when there was felt to no longer be any product on grocery shelves to worry about and the outbreak was declared over.

In the current, ongoing outbreak, over 100 known illnesses have been documented.

In fact, since 1995 there have been 44 outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 contaminated green leafy vegetables. This is no longer the “Hamburger bug.”

With five large multistate outbreaks in the last two years, it is very apparent that eating green leafy vegetables can be a danger to our health, and we can’t cook them to sterile.

I know this is a site usually dedicated to meat and poultry issues, but if the Food & Drug Administration and Center for Disease Control look long and hard enough to find the original source of these bacteria, they are eventually going to bump into a cow or two.

But here is what has changed my grocery shopping habits: In 2017, 2018 and now 2019, there have been three outbreaks, one each year, with dozens sickened and all were caused by the same E. coli O157:H7 strain.

This means the same source, an ongoing source, and all came from the growing area known as the Salinas Valley.

The PFGE testing does not lie. These three outbreaks were all caused by the same bug.

The cow that shed that E. coli strain through its feces is long since gone.

But the bug remains. Somewhere.

Might be in the water, the soil, some equipment, feral pigs, etc.

I am betting on the water.

But surely state, local and federal officials have tested any water in the area for E. coli, haven’t they?

Rivers, lakes, ponds and groundwater used for irrigation are the most likely continuing source in my estimation.

This is not rocket science.

If USDA had a slaughter plant that generated three recalls in three years attributed to the exact same germ, that plant would be shuttered until authorities were assured that the source had been found and cleaned up.

Canada recently shut down three beef slaughter facilities for food safety issues; why can’t FDA shut down the offending farms and/or production sites until something definitive is done about the ongoing contamination?

It is my recollection that with the outbreak in 2017 a feedlot was located nearby. Has it or the farm been moved? I doubt it.

Why can’t FDA be a little bit more open and transparent as to what their investigations have shown, and what they have done to try and remedy the ongoing problem?

Are they testing product before it is shipped, as USDA does for trim and ground beef?

Are they testing equipment and facilities as USDA does for listeria?

I have a lot of questions, but no solid answers.

But I do know one thing; until we get some answers, we will not buy romaine lettuce again for our household.

Sure, most of the outbreaks are associated with the Salinas product, but not all lettuce is labeled as to where it was grown. And, quite frankly, I do not trust the farms and the production sites to necessarily be forthcoming.

I mean seriously, would you proudly label your product as “Grown and Picked and Processed in the Salinas Valley”?

So, in the meantime, Romaine lettuce joins raw oysters, sprouts, sushi and chicken paws on my list of no-nos.

And yes, I do eat ground beef and dunk my toast in a runny egg yolk but only with my fingers crossed.

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