Thanksgiving week wasn’t the best timing for a spate of infections caused by E. coli, a potentially life-threatening bacterium often related to contaminated food.

The Food and Drug Administration announced an investigation on Nov. 20 of a multistate outbreak of E. coli P157 H7 illnesses, likely linked to romaine lettuce. The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency joined in the investigation after a similar wave of illnesses hit Canada. In the announcement, the FDA recommended that people not eat romaine lettuce until more was known about the source of contamination and the status of the outbreak.

As of last week, the contamination source had been traced to the central coast growing regions of northern and central California where the romaine had been harvested. It appears no other growing region was involved.

Altogether there were 43 cases of illnesses and 16 hospitalizations reported in 12 states. No deaths were reported, and an advisory — not a recall — was issued for the lettuce.

Grocery stores varied in their reactions. In some places, full-head romaine lettuce and other products containing romaine were removed from the shelves. In stores where romaine continued to be stocked, prices shot up more than a dollar to around $3.50 a pound.

Jeff Phillips, CEO of Rosauers grocery stores in Idaho and Washington, said all romaine was pulled from the shelves for nearly two weeks. After the contaminated product was flushed from the supply chain, the lettuce was expected to be re-stocked Friday.

The move was not cheap.

“We have 85 different units that had romaine; some products were not packaged, and some were packaged,” Phillips said. “Normally under a recall, a vendor or supplier might have to reimburse the retailer, but under an advisory then that loss becomes our loss.”

Even so, Phillips said, “when an advisory comes out, we’ve all been trained: If there’s any possibility of an issue, you want to react quickly for the customer.”

This most recent problem is the third contamination of romaine lettuce in the past year, and in its wake some have been calling for mandatory place-of-origin labeling on fresh produce.

This labeling would be similar to the county-of-origin labeling on meat, which helps consumers identify where such products were grown.

No such legislation has yet moved forward, and the California produce industry has agreed to begin voluntarily labeling regions where fresh produce is grown.

The FDA noted that during this most recent outbreak no romaine harvested outside the central California regions was affected and “it is vital that consumers and retailers have an easy way to identify romaine lettuce by both harvest date and harvest location. Labeling with this information on each bag of romaine or signage in stores where labels are not an option would easily differentiate for consumers romaine from unaffected growing regions.”

Phillips said place-of-origin labeling would be a good thing for stores like his because “this time there was no indication of where the product came from. As a result, everybody pulled everything in our area. We were buying from Yuma, Ariz., which was not tainted, but the advisory came down and we pulled (romaine) from a safety standpoint.

“So if the labeling had been such that it had come from a portion of California or Mexico (that was not affected by the outbreak) then people would be able to see that on the packaged product.”

Chanel Tewalt, a spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, said her agency had not received any complaints about the romaine lettuce contamination, but that’s largely because leafy greens are not a major agricultural crop in this state.

Labeling fresh produce for where it was grown, she said, “makes sense if you think about growers in Yuma wanting to be able to sell in the event of another outbreak. Right now, you wouldn’t know where it was packaged.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each year 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from eating contaminated food. The center tracks foodborne illnesses and collaborates with state and local health departments and other agencies to investigate outbreaks.

Tewalt said food safety measures that have been put into place over the past 16 years are focused more on education and outreach to try to prevent food contamination outbreaks rather than enforcement.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who is the chairwoman of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus and a senior democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said voluntary agreements on food labeling are far from adequate to protect public health.

The voluntary agreement between the FDA and California producers “is not meaningful action to prevent further outbreaks,” DeLauro said in a prepared statement. “This agreement misses the crux of the issue: What should our federal agencies be doing to keep Americans’ food safe? These labels will have no impact on ensuring contaminated food does not make it to grocery store shelves in the first place. … It is long past time the FDA steps up and prevents future outbreaks … by enforcing all parts of the Food Safety Modernization Act.”

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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