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
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
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.