Tick tock goes the outbreak clock — nine weeks and counting

Consumers, lettuce growers, retailers and restaurants in the United States are still stuck between the romaine and the risk as federal agencies continue to withhold information about a deadly E. coli outbreak.

That may change today as some people in the food chain have an inkling the Food and Drug Administration and/or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may break the silence. Members of Congress, produce industry groups and consumer advocates have been cranking up the pressure on the two U.S. agencies to reveal what they know, even if it isn’t definitive.

Some grocery retailers and foodservice operators, including Wendy’s fast food chain, have stopped selling and serving romaine lettuce until there is more information about the cause of the outbreak. Consumer Reports is recommending that people stop eating romaine lettuce until more information is made public.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, sent a list of pointed questions to the CDC director Monday. Four days earlier produce industry groups jointly issued a statement, in part to reassure consumers.

“Our leading produce industry associations have and will continue to cooperate fully with public health officials investigating this foodborne illness outbreak,” the produce groups’ statement says.

Turning to the government, the produce industry leaders slammed the ball into the CDC’s court, even though the FDA is the regulatory agency with jurisdiction over food.

“No public agency has contacted any romaine lettuce grower, shipper or processor and requested that they either stop shipping or recall product already in the marketplace,” according to the six product industry groups.

None of the groups responded to requests for further comment on the situation. The organizations that joined to issue the statement are:

  • Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement
  • California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement
  • Canadian Produce Marketing Association
  • Produce Marketing Association
  • United Fresh Produce Association
  • Western Growers 

Nine weeks and counting
Today marks the beginning of Week 9 since the first outbreak victim in the U.S. was confirmed with an infection from E. coli O157:H7. The two-nation outbreak has sickened 58 people in Canada and the United States, with each country reporting one death in their most recent statements.

Canadian officials announced the outbreak Dec. 11 and on Dec. 14 began recommending that people avoid eating romaine lettuce until further notice because it was the likely source of the E. coli. Laboratory testing has shown that outbreak victims in the U.S. and Canada are infected with the same strain, indicating a common food source.

In the United States, the CDC did not release any information about the outbreak until it posted a news release — not an outbreak notice — on Dec. 28. The agency has not posted any additional information since then. The FDA has not publicly posted any information, but has confirmed for Food Safety News that it is involved in the investigation.

No products have been recalled and neither Canadian nor U.S. officials have released any information about brands of romaine lettuce, growers, distributers, retailers or foodservice operations that may have sold the implicated romaine.

It is not known if all forms of romaine — head, leaves, hearts and chopped — are implicated. However, Canadian officials have reported that confirmed victims have reported eating romaine lettuce in all forms, at home and in restaurants before becoming ill.

Source: Food Safety News

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