65 sick from E. coli in Romaine lettuce: Collective amnesia for leafy green growers and loads of manure

Maybe CNN is fake news.

When the foodbabe is billed as an expert on microbial contamination of leafy greens and ends up delivering a screed about antimicrobial overuse in livestock as the source of superbugs, I sorta wonder.

But some background.

In sentencing me to jail in 1982, the judge said I had a memory of convenience.

I said I had a memory of not much.

Still don’t.

Spinach and lettuce growers seem to have a memory of not much, given the produce industry’s revisions to the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in spinach that killed four and sickened 200.

In October, 1996, a 16-month-old Denver girl drank Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, California. She died several weeks later; 64 others became ill in several western U.S. states and British Columbia after drinking the same juices, which contained unpasteurized apple cider — and E. coli O157:H7. Investigators believed that some of the apples used to make the cider might have been insufficiently washed after falling to the ground and coming into contact with deer feces.

Almost 10 years later, on Sept. 14, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that an outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 had killed a 77-year-old woman and sickened 49 others (United States Food and Drug Administration, 2006). The FDA learned from the Centers for Disease Control and Wisconsin health officials that the outbreak may have been linked to the consumption of produce and identified bagged fresh spinach as a possible cause.

In the decade between these two watershed outbreaks, almost 500 outbreaks of foodborne illness involving fresh produce were documented, publicized and led to some changes within the industry, yet what author Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point — “a point at which a slow gradual change becomes irreversible and then proceeds with gathering pace” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipping_Point) — in public awareness about produce-associated risks did not happen until the spinach E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the fall of 2006. At what point did sufficient evidence exist to compel the fresh produce industry to embrace the kind of change the sector has heralded since 2007? And at what point will future evidence be deemed sufficient to initiate change within an industry?

In 1996, following extensive public and political discussions about microbial food safety in meat, the focus shifted to fresh fruits and vegetables, following an outbreak of Cyclospora cayetanesis ultimately linked to Guatemalan raspberries that sickened 1,465 in 21 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997), and subsequently Odwalla. That same year, Beuchat (1996) published a review on pathogenic microorganisms in fresh fruits and vegetables and identified numerous pathways of contamination.

By 1997, researchers at CDC were stating that pathogens could contaminate at any point along the fresh produce food chain — at the farm, processing plant, transportation vehicle, retail store or foodservice operation and the home — and that by understanding where potential problems existed, it was possible to develop strategies to reduce risks of contamination. Researchers also reported that the use of pathogen-free water for washing would minimize risk of contamination.

What was absent in this decade of outbreaks, letters from regulators, plans from industry associations and media accounts, was verification that farmers and others in the farm-to-fork food safety system were seriously internalizing the messages about risk, the numbers of sick people, and translating such information into front-line food safety behavioural change.

So why was spinach in 2006 the tipping point?

It shouldn’t have been.

But it lets industry apologists say, how the hell could we known?

Beginning Sept. 14 and continuing until Sept. 20, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued daily news releases that flatly advised consumers “not to eat fresh spinach or fresh spinach-containing products until further notice.”

The agency had never before issued such a broad warning about a commodity, said Robert Brackett, who in 2006 was director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutritions. Brackett is now vice president and director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology,

“In this particular case all we knew (was) that it was bagged leafy spinach, but we had no idea whose it was or where it was coming from.

“It was a very scary couple of days because we had all of these serious cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome popping up and people getting sick, and it was so widespread across the country.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported about half of those who were ill were hospitalized during the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak.

“It was shocking how little confidence that FDA and consumers had in the produce industry at that moment,” said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

Given the history of outbreaks, the only thing shocking was that the industry continued to expect blind faith.

There were guidelines for growers in 2006, but not a way to make sure growers were following them, said Joe Pezzini, CEO of Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif.


And now another decade-plus has passed and once again, FDA issued a commodity-wide warning: don’t eat Romaine lettuce (Cos for my Australian friends).

The same huskers and buskers stepped out to make their case, with industry saying OK, maybe we need to be more than a mile away from 100,000 cattle head feedlots that crap into the same water canals used to irrigate leafy greens.

Denny Black, a Manitoba farmer, who grows more than 20,000 heads of Greenleaf and butterhead lettuce at his Neva Farms in Landmark, Man., using hydroponics, a mix of nutrients including calcium and  nitrogen combined with water. The plants, which take about eight weeks to mature from tiny seeds into full grown greens, are grown under artificial lights.

“I think people are looking for an alternative to field grown crops,” Black said.

His method, he claims, could mitigate some risk, since produce can be contaminated with E. coli through the soil, water, animals or improperly composted manure.

Fortunately, Claudia Narvaez, an associate professor in the food science department at the University of Manitoba said, “If the seeds for that lettuce are contaminated with a foodborne pathogen, you can’t, you won’t get rid of it even in a hydroponic production system.”

She added that Black’s controlled environment is only moderately safer compared to soil, depending on the source of the water and whether people follow proper safety procedures when handling the produce.

Keith Warriner of the University of Guelph told CBC he was “shocked” by advice the public got this week from Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health, after people got sick from E. coli in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

Russell advised people to throw away their romaine lettuce. But if they decided to consume the lettuce, she said, they should wash it under cool, running water.

Warriner said washing is too risky.

“We’ve known for years now that washing doesn’t cut it.”

Warriner also told CTV News that romaine lettuce is more susceptible to E. coli contamination partly because of how it’s grown, adding “In our own research, what we found is that E. coli likes romaine lettuce out of all the other lettuces we have.”

Warriner conducted a study that showed romaine lettuce extracts prompted E. coli out of a dormant state, which it can remain in for about a year in soil, and allowed it to flourish.

Romaine’s increased susceptibility comes down to several factors, he said.

The crop is mostly grown in Arizona and California, Warriner said, which is also cattle country. Irrigation water used on romaine fields can become tainted with bacteria from the animals. It doesn’t help that both states are quite hot and romaine lettuce already requires an abundance of water, he said.

But top prize goes to the self-proclaimed foodbabe, she who gets chemicals out of food and managed to secure an interview on CNN (she starts at about 40 seconds in; judge for yourselves).

(Update: the video appears to be removed by CNN, probably due to the Twitter backlash, but here’s the transcript)

I don’t want to give her anymore space for fear it will be associated with credibility: it’s not, that stuff is earned.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says romaine lettuce is now safe to eat following the “purge” of product on the market, and will allow supplies to resume, after grower-shippers agreed to new labeling standards that will include where the lettuce is grown.

The agreement, negotiated by romaine grower-shippers, processors and industry associations, will be the new standard for romaine packed in the U.S. The standards follow an E. coli outbreak linked to 43 illnesses in the U.S. and 22 in Canada, as of Nov. 26.

 “A number of produce associations also have agreed to support this initiative and are recommending that all industry members throughout the supply chain follow this same labeling program,” according to the United Fresh Produce Association, in an e-mail alert to members Nov. 26 sent several hours before the FDA released a statement lifting the advisory that virtually banned romaine in the U.S.

According to the FDA statement, the new labels are voluntary, but its updated message to consumers suggests it’s against shippers’ interest to forego the label:

“Based on discussions with major producers and distributors, romaine lettuce entering the market will now be labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date,” according to the FDA. “Romaine lettuce entering the market can also be labeled as being hydroponically or greenhouse grown. If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it.”

I like that. It’s what we used with Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers back in 2000 – yes I’m that old – this is a voluntary food safety program, but we have a list of everyone who doesn’t participate and that list will be available to retailers.

Yet why didn’t growers do this for themselves, decades ago, instead of waiting for sick people?

The FDA is advising retailers to display signs about the origin of romaine products when they’re not individually packaged, such as bulk displays of unwrapped heads of romaine.

And kudos to Hansel ‘n Griddle, a small but popular breakfast/lunch chain in the Rutgers area.

In the interest of public health, they texted the following to their customers:

To Our Valued Customer,

Hansel ‘n Griddle has temporarily stopped serving romaine lettuce due to a CDC Food Safety Alert posted on Tuesday, November 20th, 2018 regarding a E. coli outbreak with its source being from romaine lettuce. 

From the CDC website: “The CDC is advising that U.S. consumers not eat any romaine lettuce, and retailers and restaurants not serve or sell any, until we learn more about the outbreak… This advice includes all types or uses of romaine lettuce, such as whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, and bags and boxes of precut lettuce and salad mixes that contain romaine, including baby romaine, spring mix, and Caesar salad.”

Below are two links, one to the CDC website, and one to the FDA website, giving details on the E. coli outbreak and more information.



 While the CDC has not issued any formal recalls yet, we want to be proactive when it comes to issues regarding food safety and our customers health.

In the meantime, all Hansel ‘n Griddle locations will be substituting romaine lettuce with:

  • Iceberg lettuce in all our salads and wraps
  • Green leaf lettuce on all our paninis, sandwiches and burgers

As always, baby spinach is available for a small upcharge, in place of one of the above lettuce options.

We apologize for any inconvinience this temporary situation may cause

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us atinfo@hanselngriddle.com

Thank you for being a Hansel ‘n Griddle customer.

Best Regards,

The Hansel ‘n Griddle Team