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E. coli and romaine in the news... again

Update 11/26/19:

Almost exactly one one year ago to this date, just days before Thanksgiving, the nation was reeling from a large, multi-state outbreak of E.coli associated linked to romaine lettuce grown in central and northern CA. 

Sound familiar? Once again there is another outbreak of E. coli and romaine lettuce, this time traced back to the Salinas, CA  area. At least 40 people have reported illnesses after eating romaine from this area, including one person in Minnesota. It is too early to determine the source of the contamination, but genetic analysis indicates that the strains are similar to previous outbreaks.

The FDA issued the following warning on Nov 22, 2019:
Consumers should not eat romaine lettuce harvested from Salinas, California. Additionally, consumers should not eat products identified in the recall announced by the USDA on November 21, 2019.
Consumers are urged to review their packaging to determine if the product was grown in Salinas. If it came from Salinas, or if the area is not specified, the product should not be consumed.

Traceability and Labeling: The Inside Story

As these outbreaks continue, traceability and labeling will likely become even more important inside the fresh produce industry.  Proper labeling provides a system to trace product back from the buyer like a restaurant or grocery store to the farm where the product was grown, and sometimes even the field. 

Many local growers have a traceabilty and lot code system so that they can look back at records to determine where a specific lot was grown if there are any questions from a buyer. The sticker or label (like the "Empire" example) is on the package or lot and follows the product. 

Then, for example, if a buyer called and said that they thought that a patron of their restaurant was sickened from eating a grower's fresh spinach, the traceability system allows the grower to go back and see what day that product was harvested, and therefore who was working. 

That grower can then tell the buyer the steps they took to keep the product safe, like training employees to wash their hands and not to work when they are sick. Traceability protects the farmer in this way. 

For the FDA update on this recall and outbreak click here
For coverage from the Packer click here
Star Tribune coverage click here

Romaine's past troubles included MN

(As reported on Dec. 4, 2018 in the Y&G News:)
In November 2018, at least 43 people from 12 states got sick from 
E.coli associated linked to romaine lettuce grown in central and northern CA. 

Earlier that year, another E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with romaine from the Yuma, AZ growing region sickened at least 210 people and caused 5 deaths, including 2 in Minnesota. 

 A widespread E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 2006 on fresh spinach was traced back to irrigation water contaminated with feces from cattle or wild deer. 

Why should I care about produce safety in my own garden?

Be sure hands and tools are clean
before you start harvesting!
Here's an excerpt from a Yard & Garden News article written last January (1/1/19) to give gardeners some insight on how to prevent contamination in their very own garden: 

If you grow produce to sell or give away, or maybe you are part of a community garden where many people grow and harvest, it’s your responsibility to keep it as safe as possible. 

Remember that fresh produce is food – and you may not know who is eating the food you grow. Some people, particularly children, elderly folks, or those who are pregnant or have compromised immune systems, can become seriously ill or even die from foodborne illness in produce.

What are 'good food safety practices'? 

Produce safety doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming! There are simple steps you can take to minimize risk when growing produce. These steps, known as Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs, are science-based actions that can be used to make produce safer. 

As gardeners, here are some things you can do:
  • Wash hands before harvesting produce or anytime they may source of contamination, such as after using the bathroom or after applying compost to the garden.
  • Clean harvest tools and equipment regularly by washing in soapy water, and spray with a sanitizer.
  • Do not harvest any produce with poop on it! If you accidentally do, properly dispose of the contaminated produce and wash your hands.
  • Do your best to keep wild animals out of the garden using fences or decoys. And while pets are family, they don’t belong in the garden!
  • Use caution when applying any manure-based product, such as composted manure, bedding material from backyard chickens, raw manure from a friend’s farm, etc. Unless you can verify that the product has been fully composted (e.g. following protocol from the National Organic Program), apply it to the garden at least 120 days before harvest.

Final thoughts...

Food safety practices are, and should continue to be, an important part of a vibrant and growing local food system.

For more information about what the fresh produce industry does to prevent unsafe fruits and vegetables from going to market, see the University of Minnesota On-Farm GAPs education program

Author: Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator - On-Farm Food Safety, Anne Sawyer, PhD., Extension Educator - On-Farm Food Safety

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