Yesterday the CDC reported that the E.coli outbreak linked to romaine lettucegrown in the Salinas, CA growing region is over. The contaminated lettuce should no longer be available, and FDA states that consumers do not need to avoid romaine lettuce from Salinas. The agency will continue its investigation into the potential factors and sources that led to the outbreak.
The FDA did identify a common grower link to the E.coli O157:H7 contamination as a result of its traceback investigation. However, a statement released yesterday by FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas points out that “this grower does not explain all of the illnesses seen in these outbreaks.”
To be specific, the FDA, CDC and other public health agencies were tracking three outbreaks involving three separate strains of E.coli O157:H7 linked to romaine lettuce. During the course of the investigation FDA, CDC, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Public Health conducted sampling of the water, soil and compost of several of the fields in the lower Salinas Valley that were connected to the outbreak. “So far, sample results have come back negative for all of the three outbreak strains of E. coli O157:H7. However, we did find a strain of E. coli that is unrelated to any illnesses in a soil sample taken near a run-off point in a buffer zone between a field where product was harvested and where cattle are known to occasionally graze,” Yiannas said in the agency statement. “This could be an important clue that will be further examined as our investigation continues. However, this clue does not explain the illnesses seen in these outbreaks.”
Finding the contamination source(s) is critical, as it will aid romaine growers in putting safeguards in place to help prevent future contamination.
As for the final case count (with last illness onset on December 21, 2019) of this outbreak, there were 167 total illnesses and 85 hospitalizations across the United States. No deaths were reported.
Using whole genome sequencing (WGS), FDA has confirmed 96 illnesses in 11 states that were caused by Salmonella Javiana. Thus far, traceback evidence indicates that a fruit mix from New Jersey-based Tailor Cut Produce is the possible source of the outbreak.
FDA provided its latest update about the ongoing investigation today: Of the 96 illnesses, 27 have been hospitalized, and no deaths have been reported. The highest number of illnesses have been reported in Delaware (39), Pennsylvania (34) and New Jersey (12). The agency stated its inspection at Tailor Cut Produce continues and it is collecting records to support a traceback investigation.
In the latest FDA update about the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak involving romaine lettuce, the agency has stated that consumers should not eat romaine lettuce that has been harvested from Salinas, California. Traceback investigations related to three different E. coli outbreaks (three different strains, all of which involve romaine lettuce) have pointed to a common grower located in Salinas. Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response, called the identification of a common grower a “notable development” but also stated in a press announcement, “Because of the expansive nature of these outbreaks, our investigation remains a complicated work in progress, and it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions.”
FDA, CDC and California partners have sent out a team to conduct new investigations at ranches used by the grower as part of the process in finding the contamination source, according to an FDA update.
Thus far, 102 illnesses have been reported across 23 states, with 58 hospitalizations. No deaths have been reported. The last illness onset was reported on November 18.
Thus far Swedesboro, NJ-based Missa Bay, LLC has recalled more than 75,000 pounds of salad products because of a lettuce ingredient that might be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. This lettuce was also found to be in packaged salad that the Maryland Department of Health said contained E. coli.
FDA states that thus far lettuce grown indoors has not been indicated in the outbreak.
During the past year, the headlines have been filled with stories of foodborne illness, product recalls, and consumers becoming sick from tainted food. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Sean O’Leary, CEO at FoodLogiQ, talks food safety, traceability, and how small percentages can translate into big victories for the food industry and for the people they serve.
Food Safety Tech: From your perspective, what is the current sentiment of consumers with regard to food safety?
Sean O’Leary: Over the last few years, the consumer mindset has changed about food in general. We’ve watched fad diets come and go; however, the interest in healthy ingredients and the concern about where food comes from has graduated from a passing trend to a full shift into the public consciousness. Consumers are much more discerning about what they eat; they also demand to know where their food comes from, how it was produced, and how it got to their table. We are living in the age of transparency, and consumer expectations are high.
And who can blame them? CDC statistics tell us that approximately 48 million people get sick every year from foodborne illnesses—and that’s just in the United States; 128,000 of them end up in the hospital. When a person is admitted to the hospital, it affects more than just that one individual. If the patient is the sole breadwinner of their family, their illness affects the entire family. If the person who gets sick is a child, there can be long-term consequences that trickle down to his or her whole community. And when you consider that 3,000 people die every year from foodborne illness—that’s one 9/11 every year. That’s unacceptable, because this is a preventable issue, and unfortunately, these illnesses are an underreported public health problem.
My challenge to the food industry is simple: What if we made just a 1% improvement in the number of cases of foodborne illness? That seems like such a small percentage, but when you do that math, that’s 480,000 people who don’t get sick this year; 1,280 people who aren’t admitted to the hospital; and 30 people who don’t die. Those are significant numbers.
FST: To help shed additional light on this subject, FoodLogiQ conducted a national survey to tap into how U.S. consumers feel about issues related to food transparency. What did you learn from those consumer responses?
O’Leary: We polled more than 2,000 people to gauge their sentiment around food traceability and their expectations for food companies regarding foodborne illness and product recalls. The survey also posed questions around consumer preferences regarding their food sources and how they are identified on food labels and menus. The results were enlightening, to say the least.
We learned that a brand or restaurant will pay a high price in terms of customer loyalty if they experience a food recall due to consumer illness. And those customers have some strong opinions regarding how quickly the brand or restaurant should address a food safety issue.
35% of survey respondents told us they would avoid an affected brand or restaurant for a few months, and maybe they would return after the issue had been resolved. Meanwhile, nearly 25% admitted they would never use the brand or visit the restaurant again.
Of the respondents who say they care about the quality of the food they eat, 55% say they expect a recall to be executed within 24 to 48 hours.
In reality, it sometimes takes weeks for a product to be pulled from the store or restaurant. This is frequently due to communication issues, since everyone along the supply chain—the grower, supplier, packing and distribution centers, corporate office, and the retailer or restaurant—all must be notified, and a recall plan must be set in motion. Unfortunately, that communication process takes time. When that communication takes place via email or by phone call, the people responsible for pulling product may not have the information they need or may have received misinformation. This can result in lag time, and potentially unsafe product can still get into the hands of consumers.
The faster a food company can address a recall situation and return to business as usual, the faster customers will come back. But comprehensive supply chain transparency is needed to be able to make swift, accurate decisions during this time of crisis. By having a robust end-to-end traceability program and technology that provides real-time data and visibility, companies facing a recall can isolate and surgically withdraw the tainted product out of the supply chain without recalling more items than necessary. That limits the disruption and the waste of good food, which saves the company money.
O’Leary: FoodLogiQ was honored to have the opportunity to share our intricate knowledge of the food supply chain, as well as best practices regarding whole chain traceability during this monumental meeting with the FDA with more than 250 food industry leaders.
In retrospect, one thing is clear—we’re in the midst of a pivotal time of change for the world’s food supply chain. In the United States, the food industry remained status quo for decades, but the introduction of FSMA has brought increased scrutiny and accountability; I think it’s made every food company pause and evaluate where they are with regard to food safety, and that’s a good thing. And now, with the launch of the “New Era” campaign, we’re coming together in a collaborative fashion to map out how technology tools, prevention measures, new business models, and an evolving culture of food safety can be merged as a framework for a long term food safety solution. I agree with the FDA; ‘Smarter Food Safety’ is people-led, FSMA-based, and technology-enabled. It will take all of us working together to reach that goal.
Rodents are vectors of more than 50 pathogens, including plague.1 While plague may be considered a problem of the past, according to the World Health Organization, between 2010 and 2015, there were 3,248 cases of reported plague worldwide and 584 deaths. While it is clearly not the 1300’s when the plague killed millions, the CDC confirms, “plague occurs in rural and semi-rural areas of the western United States, primarily in semi-arid upland forests and grasslands where many types of rodent species can be involved.” While the fact that plague is still lurking is a bit surprising, it should be no surprise that rodents can spread more than 50 diseases. Not the least of these diseases is Salmonella braenderup, the cause of recall of approximately 206,749,248 eggs in 2018. The good news: In the age of IoT, new technology can enable an immediate response to help prevent infestations from growing out of control.
With rodent populations on the rise due to climate change and the resultant public health issues in major cities across the United States, public health officials and pest managers face unimaginable challenges in staying ahead of rapidly growing and spreading rodent infestations. Earlier this year, Los Angeles had a typhus outbreak that resulted from a rat infestation near an encampment for those experiencing homelessness. The unsanitary conditions created a harborage for rats that spread the flea-borne illness. Cases of typhoid have doubled in the area since 2012. When and where will the next pathogen outbreak from rodent activity hit?
If that’s not frightening enough, it is important to highlight that once an infected, flea-carrying rodent enters a facility, eliminating the rodent does not always necessarily mean eliminating the presence of plague pathogens. The World Health Organization explains that once vectors have been introduced through rodents and their fleas, it is not enough to eliminate rodents. Vector control must take place before rodent control because “killing rodents before vectors will cause the fleas to jump to new hosts.”
Controlling the spread of pathogens via rodents is becoming increasingly important, particularly in sensitive environments like food processing and manufacturing facilities. Effective management begins with early and accurate detection and sustained through continuous monitoring. However, the traditional method of manual rodent inspection by its very nature cannot provide facility and pest managers with either early detection or continuous monitoring.
Thanks to IoT, monitoring systems can now be used in a wide variety of rodent monitoring devices inside and outside a facility. The systems transmit messages in real time over wireless networks and provide pest managers, facility management and public health officials with 24/7 visibility of rodent activity in a monitored location, which will enable more timely responses and help improve the effectiveness of mitigation efforts. Digital IoT technologies are rapidly becoming the modern proactive tool used to help predict and control rodent issues before they occur in an age when traditional, reactive methods are insufficient.
Northfork Bison Distributions, Inc. has issue a voluntary recall of its Bison Ground and Bison/Buffalo Burgers following a multistate outbreak of E. coli O121 and E. coli O103 linked to its ground bison. The ground bison was produced between February 22, 2019 and April 30, 2019, and has expiration dates through October 8, 2020.
Thus far, 21 people have become ill, and eight have been hospitalized, with cases reported in Connecticut, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Although FDA is continuing its investigation into the source of the E.coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce grown in California, the CDC has declared the outbreak over. Contaminated romaine that caused illnesses should no longer be available, FDA stated in an outbreak update. Consumers will not need to avoid romaine lettuce, and retailers and restaurants do not need to avoid selling or serving the product, according to the agency. Suppliers and distributors need not avoid shipping or selling any romaine that is on the market either.
FDA has recommended that romaine lettuce is labeled with the harvest location and date, as well as whether it has been grown hydroponically or in a greenhouse. “ In case of future product withdrawals or recalls of romaine lettuce, this will help to limit the amount of product to be removed from the market and it will help consumers, restaurants and retailers determine that the romaine lettuce they are buying is from an unaffected growing region,” stated FDA. In addition, the detailed labeling should be available in stores, the agency states.
Following an expanded recall issued this week, JBS Tolleson, Inc. has now recalled about 12,093,271 pounds of non-intact raw beef products over concerns that they may be contaminated with Salmonella Newport. The initial recall of nearly 7 million raw beef products occurred just two months ago. The Class I recall announced today involves an additional 5,156,076 pounds of raw beef products that were produced and packed between July 26 and September 7, 2018, according to USDA’s FSIS . The recalled products have the establishment number “EST. 267” inside the USDA mark of inspection.
According to the CDC, there are currently 246 reported Salmonella Newport illnesses across 25 states, with 59 hospitalizations. No deaths have been reported. FSIS and CDC have been working with case patients who have provided receipts or shopper card numbers to conduct traceback investigations. The agencies are urging consumers to check their freezers for any recalled product.
FDA has issued a release stating that the E. coli outbreak is likely linked to romaine lettuce grown in California during the fall timeframe. The agency’s traceback investigation is in progress, and it is looking at shipping records and invoices in order to trace the romaine lettuce supply from places in which ill people have been exposed to where the product was grown. Thus far this information has been connected to romaine lettuce harvested in the Central Coast growing regions located in northern and central California. Locations outside of California have not been linked to this particular outbreak, and thus the FDA is not recommending that consumers or retailers avoid romaine lettuce that has been grown outside of these California regions. The agency has not found evidence of any outbreaks linked to romaine that was grown hydroponically or in a greenhouse.
“During this new stage of the investigation, it is vital that consumers and retailers have an easy way to identify romaine lettuce by both harvest date and harvest location. Labeling with this information on each bag of romaine or signage in stores where labels are not an option would easily differentiate for consumers romaine from unaffected growing regions.” – FDA
As a result, FDA stated that romaine lettuce entering the market will be labeled with a harvest location and date to help consumers distinguish unaffected growing regions.
Just when we thought the E.coli O157:H7 outbreak involving romaine lettuce was over: Today CDC issued a Food Safety Alert informing consumers not to eat ANY romaine lettuce. Retailers and restaurants shouldn’t serve any either.
“Thirty-two people infected with the outbreak strain of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7 have been reported from 11 states.
Illnesses started on dates ranging from October 8, 2018 to October 31, 2018.
Thirteen people were hospitalized, including one person who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure. No deaths have been reported.” – CDC
The agency is urging against the consumption of romaine lettuce because they haven’t been able to identify a common grower, supplier, distributor or brand.
Could we be in for another widespread outbreak? Just last week during a panel discussion at the Food Safety Consortium, the FDA and CDC said that when the last outbreak occurred they knew it would get bad really quickly.
This year’s multistate outbreak of E.coli O157:H7 infections linked to romaine lettuce affected 210 people, killing five. Although the outbreak was officially declared over by the end of June, questions still remain as to the exact source. Given the widespread nature of the outbreak and the speed with which illnesses occurred, there are many lessons to be learned from the case.
During last week’s annual Food Safety Consortium, industry stakeholders from the FDA, CDC and produce associations gathered to discuss agency action upon learning of the outbreak and where there is room for improvement.
The investigation began in April 2018 when the New Jersey Department of Health contacted the CDC about a cluster of E.coli O157:H7 illnesses from people who said they ate salads at various locations of the same restaurant chain. Three days later, the agency was able to confirm eight O157 isolates from six states with the same patterns using PulseNet. And five days after that, the CDC posted a notice on its website about the investigation of 17 cases across seven states.
“We knew right away that this was going to get bad and that it would get bad quickly,” said Matthew Wise, deputy branch chief for outbreak response at the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch of the CDC. “We saw illnesses ramp up quickly.” He added that the agency saw a lot of illness subclusters, all with romaine lettuce as the common ingredient.
The epidemiological evidence clearly indicated chopped romaine lettuce, and it appeared that all the affected romaine was coming from the Yuma, Arizona growing region, noted Stic Harris, director of the Coordinated Outbreak Response & Evaluation Network at FDA. But then things got even more confusing, as an Alaskan correctional facility was also investigating a cluster of cases. This allowed the agency to trace the source directly back to Harrison Farms as the sole supplier to the correctional facility. However, as the multi-agency investigation continued, they uncovered that the source was not just one farm. “There were three dozen farms in the Yuma region that supplied romaine lettuce,” said Harris, adding that we may never know which exact farm, and even if it was one farm, that was the source of the outbreak.
During June, July and August, the FDA sent a multidisciplinary team of 16-18 people to conduct an environmental assessment of the affected area. Upon taking 111 samples, they found 13 different Shiga toxin-producing E. coli strains, but only three matched the strain of the outbreak. Water from 14 locations, including discharge, reservoir and canal water, was also tested. The environmental assessment found pervasive contamination in the water. But here was the big problem, said Harris: “There was no smoking gun. We don’t know how the E.coli got into the water, and we don’t know how the water got onto the lettuce.” He added that additional research is needed, and that government and non-government work must continue to identify the source.
There are several challenges associated with the complexity of this type of produce outbreak, said Harris and Wise:
The production lot information disappears at the point of service
Having a commingled product hinders traceback
Records present a challenge because agencies try to look at each company and their individual records, and every company has their own way of doing things—this takes time
The breadth of the impacted area—trying to do an environmental assessment for that area was staggering work
People who eat lettuce eat it often
Many people don’t remember what type of lettuce they ate
The product has a short shelf life
Communication: The packaging isn’t transparent on where it’s grown
Scott Horsfall, CEO, California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, chimed in on the challenges posed by the complexity of the outbreak. “If you compare these numbers with the 2016 spinach outbreak…they’re very similar [in the] total number of illnesses [and] number of states involved. But in [the spinach outbreak], it led to a specific farm. What we saw this time was very different.”
When it comes to food safety compliance, learning lessons the hard way is never a good practice. Violations, non-compliance and documentation mishaps put a major damper on your business. From delays in production to the dreaded recall, these mistakes can cost thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Don’t learn these lessons the hard way. See our Case Studies and learn how companies are avoiding these costly mistakes with TraceGains.
One of the large successes in dealing with the outbreak is that the agencies issued public warnings quickly, said Wise. The produce industry also came together to form the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force. In addition, FDA is expanding its sampling for the coming harvests, according to Harris. “I think that in terms of the speed of the environmental assessment, we need to be quicker with that. We apparently hadn’t done one in quite a long time at FDA,” he said.
Harris and Wise also stressed that for industry to work more effectively together, they need to work with the FDA and CDC before there is an outbreak.
“This outbreak was a frustrating experience for all of us,” said Horsfall. “We have to communicate more and better when we can. And as an industry, stop these outbreaks from happening.”
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