by Marion Nestle
Jun 6 2018

The Romaine lettuce outbreak: source still unknown, victim count rising

The FDA did something quite unusual.  It issued an apparently frank description of where it is in investigating the Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak that has sickened 197 people, put 89 in the hospital, and killed five—so far.

It published a chart summarizing what the agency has learned about the various distribution channels along the way to the contaminated lettuce that made people sick.

As the FDA explains:

As can be seen in the diagram, in the current outbreak, and based on the information we have to date, there are still no obvious points of convergence along the supply chain…These pathways lead back to different farms, sometimes many farms, where possibly contaminated lettuce could have been harvested during the timeframe of interest.  The only point of commonality in our traceback efforts to date is that all of the farms are located in the Yuma growing region…What does this traceback diagram tell us?  It says that there isn’t a simple or obvious explanation for how this outbreak occurred within the supply chain…The contamination likely happened at, or close to, the Yuma growing area.  Our task now is to investigate what happened.

I used “apparently” with reference to the FDA’s frankness because food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who represents many of the victims of this outbreak,* points out that the FDA must know the names of the farms, distributors, and sellers of the contaminated lettuce, but refuses to say who they are.  Of his own work, Marler says:

We are in the unique position to know many, but not all, of the “points of sale” – restaurants and grocery stores – involved in the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce. Having over 100 clients allows us to dig deep into their purchase history and consumption history.

We have already determined clusters of illnesses linked to Panera, Texas Roadhouse, Red Lobsters and Papa Murphy’s. We also have identified a processor – Freshway Foods.

If you knew the names of places selling contaminated lettuce, wouldn’t you have sense enough not to eat in them?