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FDA says Romaine lettuce sourced from Yuma linked to E. coli outbreak

by Joan Murphy | May 06, 2010
WASHINGTON - Food & Drug Administration investigators have traced Romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, AZ, region to an E. coli outbreak that has sickened 19 people in three states, Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner of foods for FDA, said at a May 6 congressional hearing.

The first case of E. coli poisoning was reported April 6, but it took until May 5 when the New York state Public Health Laboratory in Albany found a positive sample of E. coli O145 in a bag of Freshway Foods shredded Romaine lettuce to track down the possible source of the outbreak, said Mr. Taylor.

"In this case, once the company was identified, there was not a problem getting back to the field," Mr. Taylor said at a U.S. House hearing on food safety. “We believe it's a Yuma, Arizona, product.”

FDA investigators are visiting Arizona growers that supplied Freshway its Romaine lettuce, but FDA has yet to make a link to a particular farm or find the cause of the uncommon E. coli strain, an FDA spokesman confirmed May 7.

“We still don’t know if it originated on the farm or at the processing plant,” cautioned Western Growers Association Communications Manager Paul Simonds. “It’s too early to tell.”

Investigators tracking down the uncommon E. coli strain will find that lettuce production over for the year, Mr. Simonds said. Still, there’s no better product on the market today than those being grown under leafy greens marketing agreement, he said.

The latest news raises questions about the Arizona Leafy Green Products Shipper Marketing Agreement, a system backed by mandatory food-safety standards and audits by government-certified inspectors. Arizona adopted the marketing agreement in 2007 modeled after California’s similar food- safety agreement in the wake of the E. coli outbreak that was traced back to California-grown spinach.

“One of the benefits of the marketing agreements is we do have the flexibility to incorporate new science as it comes available,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement.

Mr. Horsfall said that state marketing programs “do everything we can to prevent pathogens in the first place.”

In this situation, the recall message has been precise and focused on a particular source at a particular time, so right now there’s no cause for widespread concern in the marketplace, Mr. Horsfall added.

Twelve of the 19 people in Michigan, Ohio and New York linked to the outbreak have been hospitalized and three with a potentially life-threatening complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

A May 6 press release issued by Freshway, said that the recalled shredded romaine lettuce was sold to wholesalers, foodservice outlets and some in- store salad bars and delis in Alabama, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. No lettuce products sold to

In a May 6 statement, Freshway said that it was alerted by the FDA May 5 of a positive test in New York that day and that an investigation by FDA of its facility in Sidney had not uncovered any contamination at the plant.

Mr. Taylor said that Freshway responded quickly to the crisis and has been cooperating with the investigation.

The recalled lettuce, which was sold under the "Freshway" and “Imperial Sysco” brands, has a "best if used by" date of May 12 or earlier. The recall also affects grab-and-go salads sold at Kroger, Giant Eagle, Ingles Markets and Marsh grocery stores.