E. coli outbreak linked to romaine is over, FDA says, but hunt for the cause continues

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that consumers no longer have to avoid romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, California, though it continues to investigate the cause of three E. coli outbreaks that sickened nearly 200 people last fall.

The agency lifted the consumer advisory it issued Nov. 22 because the region's growing season is over and potentially contaminated product is no longer on the market. The last reported illness was Dec. 21.

Each of the three outbreaks involved a different strain of E. coli, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, vomiting and in some cases leads to kidney failure and death. One strain sickened 167 people in 27 states, including Illinois. Another, linked to Fresh Express salad kits, sickened 10 people in five states plus Canada, and the third sickened 11 people in Washington state.

Lettuce implicated in all the three outbreaks was traced back to 10 fields run by a single grower in the lower Salinas Valley. Water, soil and compost samples taken at the fields so far have come back negative for all three outbreak strains, and the investigation by the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California health and agriculture authorities continues.

A low-risk strain of E. coli unrelated to any of the illnesses was found in a soil sample taken near a run-off point between a field where product was harvested and where cattle occasionally graze.

"This could be an important clue that will be further examined as our investigation continues," the FDA said in a statement. "However, this clue does not explain the illnesses seen in these outbreaks."

The agency said it plans to conduct an additional investigation into the root cause of the contamination and those findings will be shared with growers so they can prevent future outbreaks.


Romaine and leafy greens have been linked to several E. coli illness outbreaks in recent years. The government issued an unusually broad warning to avoid all romaine in 2018 when 62 people fell ill, though it eventually traced the contaminated lettuce to California's Central Coast. In 2006, 276 people got sick and three died in an outbreak linked to spinach.

"Everyone across the romaine supply chain must do everything possible to fully understand why and how these outbreaks keep happening and continue to aggressively implement preventive measures to further protect consumers," FDA's statement said.

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