E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce frustrates produce industry

Despite more food-safety inspections as well as some other initiatives over the past decade, the fresh produce industry is actually dealing with what may be its worst E. coli outbreak linked to leafy greens since 2006.

There’s also been a sense of frustration for some inside food industry that will more information hasn’t been provided by the U.S. government.

A deadly strain of the E. coli bacteria possibly linked to romaine lettuce has sickened nearly 60 people as well as killed at least two inside U.S. as well as Canada, although U.S. health officials are still trying to nail down the source of the outbreak. Canada’s public health agency, though, has said romaine lettuce is actually the source of its outbreak as well as advised its population to avoid consuming the leafy vegetable.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control as well as Prevention said the idea is actually investigating illnesses in at least 13 states as well as indicated the outbreak started out in mid-November as well as cases continued through Dec. 8. One of the deaths coming from the outbreak was in California, according to a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health.

“Leafy greens tend to have little nooks as well as crannies where the idea’s hard to wash off bacteria,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.

According to Halloran, that will appears to be the worst E. coli outbreak linked to leafy greens since 2006, when contaminated baby spinach sickened at least 205 people as well as killed three.

E. coli can get on fresh produce by fecal contamination coming from wild animals, nearby livestock or even humans, say experts. The contamination can occur inside soil or water as well as happen on the farm itself or inside processing of the fresh produce.

Consumer Reports recommends U.S. consumers temporarily steer clear of the romaine lettuce. nevertheless the CDC said the idea is actually still trying to determine the origin of the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections as well as hasn’t issued any formal recommendation to stop eating romaine lettuce.

“We’ve been able to do some truly detailed DNA fingerprinting of the bacteria as well as the outbreak in Canada as well as the outbreak inside United States,” Matthew Wise, an epidemiologist as well as CDC response team leader, told CNBC on Friday.

Wise said the bacteria found on both sides of the border appear to be “truly closely related to one another.” To be clear, though, he said more data needs to be collected inside U.S. to determine if romaine lettuce is actually the source of the domestic outbreak.

However, some food industry veterans contacted just for that will story expressed frustration that will more information hasn’t been provided by the federal government as well as suggested the response has been perhaps slower than the idea should have been.

“We don’t have any information beyond what the Canadian government as well as the CDC have put out,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a food-safety program formed a decade ago inside wake of the deadly spinach E. coli outbreak. “the idea’s pretty frustrating, actually. So we don’t have any insights what may have happened.”

CDC’s Wise defended the agency’s handling as well as said, “Canada has many more illnesses in their outbreak investigation. They have linked that will to Romaine. We’re working truly hard to … confirm whether or not that will’s the case also inside U.S.”

Wise said the CDC is actually collaborating closely with the Canadian authorities “on a weekly basis.”

Meantime, some industry experts said the shelf life of romaine lettuce is actually just a few days as well as so any contaminated product is actually probably long gone coming from supermarket shelves or restaurants.

“If that will outbreak is actually actually confirmed to be caused by romaine lettuce, the idea’s important to recognize that will is actually a highly perishable product with limited usable shelf life as well as the idea’s highly unlikely a specific affected lot could still be available for sale or in a home refrigerator,” said Jon Dinsmore, a grower in Yuma, Arizona.

Together, California as well as Arizona grow about 0 percent of the leafy green vegetables produced domestically. Mexico also imports product into the United States.

Under the LGMA program, regular on-farm inspections are conducted as well as the idea certifies that will grower or shipper members are in compliance with food-safety standards. There’s a similar program operating in Arizona.

The 2006 spinach outbreak was linked to contamination coming from cattle fecal matter found near a California spinach farm, according to state as well as federal officials.

Among the some other modifications since 2006 are the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2011. the idea is actually considered the most significant update to U.S. food safety rules since the 1930s.

Regardless, some experts concede even tougher rules as well as self-policing programs by farmers as well as shippers probably won’t ever eliminate the risk entirely.

“Anytime you have a raw agricultural product, they can get contaminated, as well as you can have these kind of outbreaks,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based foodborne illness attorney.

In 2011, melons contaminated with listeria were blamed for sickening nearly 150 people, as well as 33 died as a result. Also, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued in November said there have been foodborne illnesses linked to some other fresh produce, including cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, bean sprouts as well as packaged salad products.

Marler, though, does credit the Obama-era legislation with helping to bring some change.

Contamination “is actually actually significantly less than what the idea was inside early part of the 2000s,” he said. “the idea used to be a fairly common occurrence where there could be literally hundreds of people sickened.”

Even so, the Trump administration has delayed some “key” portions of the food-safety overhaul coming from going into effect as well as is actually creating “a gap” inside farm-to-consumer “safety chain,” the Center for Science inside Public Interest charged Thursday.

The center also said the Trump administration is actually effectively “undoing” rules intended to protect consumers coming from being exposed to hazards such as E. coli or salmonella.

CNBC reached out to the White House for comment.

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