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.
The report states that a sediment sample coming from an on-farm water reservoir in Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County, California) tested positive for the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7. Although this particular farm was identified in several legs of the Fall 2018 traceback investigations that occurred in the United States and Canada, as well as being a possible supplier of romaine lettuce in the 2017 traceback investigations, the FDA said that the farm is not the single source of the outbreak, as there is “insufficient evidence”. The traceback suggests that the contaminated lettuce could have come from several farms, because not all tracebacks led to the farm on which the contaminated sediment was found.
“The finding of the outbreak strain in the sediment of the water reservoir is significant, as studies have shown that generic E. coli can survive in sediments much longer than in the overlying water. It’s possible that the outbreak strain may have been present in the on-farm water reservoir for some months or even years before the investigation team collected the positive sample. It is also possible that the outbreak strain may have been repeatedly introduced into the reservoir from an unknown source,” stated FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. and Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas in a press announcement.
Although the exact route of contamination cannot be confirmed, the FDA hypothesizes that it could have occurred through the use of agricultural water from an open reservoir, which has increased potential for contamination.
The investigation teams also found evidence of “extensive” wild animal activity and animal burrows near the contaminated reservoir, as well as adjacent land use for animal grazing, all of which could have contributed to the contamination.
Considering the significant effect that the past two E.coli outbreaks involving romaine lettuce have had on both the public as well as the produce industry, FDA made several recommendations on preventive measures that leafy greens growers and industry can take to avoid such pathogenic contamination, including:
Assessing growing operations to ensure they are in line with compliance to FSMA and good agricultural practices
Making sure that any agricultural water that comes into direct contact with the harvestable portion of the crop, food contact surfaces and harvest equipment is safe and sanitary
Address and mitigate risks associated with agricultural water contamination that can occur as a result of intrusion by wild animals
Address and mitigate risks associated with the use of land near or adjacent to agricultural water sources that can lead to contamination
Conduct root cause analysis whenever a foodborne pathogen is identified in the growing environment, agricultural inputs like water or soil, raw agricultural commodities, or “fresh-cut” ready-to-eat produce
For the broader industry:
The development of real-time procedures that enable rapid examination of the potential scope, source and route of contamination
All leafy green products should have the ability to be traced back to the source in real time, and information include harvest date. In November, FDA requested voluntary labeling [https://foodsafetytech.com/news_article/cdc-alert-do-not-eat-romaine-lettuce-throw-it-out/] to help consumers identify products affected during an outbreak
The adoption of best practices in supply chain traceability
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