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Latest Romaine lettuce recalls leave Arizona growers waiting for answers

by Joan Murphy | May 12, 2010
Arizona growers are hoping the U.S. Food & Drug Administration finds a contamination source related to the latest Romaine lettuce recall traced from an Ohio processor back to a Yuma, AZ, field as they think about next season's crop.

Freshway Foods announced May 6 a 23-state recall of Romaine lettuce supplied to foodservice and institutions with a use-by date of May 12 or earlier after FDA linked the lettuce to 19 illnesses with a rare strain of E. coli. As of May 12, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention indicated that 23 confirmed cases and seven more probable cases have been linked to the outbreak in Michigan, New York, Ohio and Tennessee. Twelve people to that point had been hospitalized.

FDA confirmed that the strain of E. coli O145 analyzed by a New York laboratory matched the strain found in an unopened bag of shredded Romaine lettuce distributed by Freshway Foods.

Investigations have visited the Freshway Foods processing facility in Ohio and the farm in Yuma that grew the Romaine lettuce supplied to Freshway Foods as they search for clues into what caused the outbreak.

Arizona growers are closely monitoring the issue. "We want to know where the contamination source is," said Arnott Duncan, chief executive officer of Duncan Family Farms and a committee member of the Arizona Leafy Green Products Shipper Marketing Agreement.

If FDA finds that the contamination is tied to the field level, "we need to know how to change our standard operating procedures," Mr. Duncan told The Produce News. "This may mean changing harvesting practices or enhancing traceability," all factors that can be altered under the Arizona leafy greens marketing agreement, he said.

Ohio inspectors found no sanitation or recordkeeping violations at the Freshway Foods processing plant. But Ohio officials did find another E. coli strain on a sample in the Freshway Foods plant that was sourced from the Yuma ranch. Ohio Department of Agriculture officials tested four samples of Freshway Foods' Romaine lettuce as part of their investigation. One of those samples collected at the processing plant tested positive for an E. coli type not associated with the current outbreak, said Kaley Frazier, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

The finding did not expand the Freshway Foods' recall because the lettuce had a use-by date of May 10 and was part of the originally recalled lot, she said. Federal officials are still subtyping the E. coli strain, Ms. Frazier added. Amy Philpott, spokesperson for Salinas, CA-based Andrew Smith Co., said that her company was notified May 7 that Ohio investigators found E. coli 0145, just a different subtype from the outbreak strain.

Andrew Smith Co. recalled 1,000 cartons sourced from the Yuma ranch under scrutiny by FDA investigators, she said. On May 7, it notified its two customers to recall products: Moore, OK-based Vaughn Foods, which recalled Romaine lettuce with use-by dates of May 9 and May 10, and another unnamed firm, but its products were no longer in commerce.

Ms. Philpott said that her company's trace-forward process to contact customers that may have received Romaine lettuce from the Yuma ranch was "very quick," and Andrew Smith plans to take a look at its food-safety protocols as more information is gathered about the outbreak.

It appears troubling that an effective traceback system was in place yet, it did not serve as a buffer for negative publicity, said Trevor Suslow, Extension research specialist at the University of California-Davis.

Companies that grow and sell lettuce will be keeping an eye on consumer spending habits in the wake of the recall. Dole Food Co. said it is seeing no effect from the publicized lettuce recall. "Sales have been good and strong. We haven't felt anything from our company," said Marty Ordman, vice president of marketing and communications for Dole Food. "As of now, we don't see any change in prices or supply."

The difference from past recalls may lie in the fact that this recall centered on Romaine lettuce sold to institutions, not bagged lettuce sold to consumers in retail stores. Mr. Duncan said that the media and FDA should have stressed more stridently that the implicated product was in foodservice, not retail.

Federal disease investigators are keeping a close eye on the emergence of E. coli O145 as a pathogen of concern in foods. The rare E. coli strain has been connected only to a food-related outbreak in Belgium, never in the United States, said Lola Russell, CDC spokesperson.

E. coli O145 in ice cream sold in a farm environment caused the Belgium recall in 2007, said Ms. Russell. In the United States, E. coli O145 has been connected to two outbreaks involving a daycare center and contaminated water.

The more popular E. coli O157:H7 strain, which accounts for half of all E. coli illnesses in the United States, is easier to diagnose because only 5 percent of the nation's laboratories have the capability or resources to look for non- O157 strains, said Ms. Russell.