E. coli in lettuce: Spongebob containment dome silencing public communications

New developments in the Freshway Foods romaine lettuce E. coli O145 outbreak:

1. Why the corporate finance dude shouldn’t be the public spokesthingy.

Freshway Foods recalled romaine lettuce products sold for food service outlets, wholesale, and in-store retail salad bars and delis last week after links with over 50 sick people in Ohio, Michigan and New York were established.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that multiple lines of evidence implicated shredded romaine lettuce from one processing facility as a source of infections in a multistate outbreak to which this recall may be related.

“The evidence includes preliminary results of product traceback investigations that indicate:
• the shredded romaine lettuce consumed by ill persons in three states originated from one processing facility;
• preliminary results of a case-control study in one state that found a statistically significant association between E. coli O145 infection;
• ingestion of lettuce from the same processing facility; and,
• recovery of E. coli O145 from an unopened package of shredded romaine lettuce from the same processing facility that was obtained from a food service entity associated with the outbreak.”

To which Freshway Foods vp of finance Devon Beer told The Packer,

“It’s really a precautionary step.”

No. It’s an outbreak and a public health step. At what point did FDA abandon epidemiology and require positive test results in an unopened package? How long were people eating potentially contaminated romaine lettuce at salad bars while regulators assembled sufficient evidence? What is the FDA policy on going public? (It doesn’t exist, at least not in any public form.) The six confirmed and suspected cases amongst students in New York’s Wappinger Central School District who came down with E. coli in April may want to know. And the lettuce they were served in the school cafeteria tested positive.

2. The suspect lettuce was grown in Yuma, Arizona

It was announced Friday that federal investigators were looking at a farm in Yuma, Ariz., as a possible source of the suspect romaine lettuce.

3. Look for pathogens and they will be found

In the wake of the E. coli O145 outbreak in romaine lettuce, a laboratory in Ohio started testing bags of romaine and found another E. coli which lead to a very private recall on Friday.

Misti Crane of the Columbus Dispatch reported this morning that the E. coli positive (strain not identified – dp) led a California company to recall about 1,000 cartons of produce that went to two customers who then processed the lettuce before sending it on to food-service establishments.

Amy Philpott, spokeswoman for Andrew Smith Co. in Spreckels, Calif., said none of the lettuce was sold in grocery stores and that only two food processors bought the cartons.

She said she didn’t know the names of those customers and did not know whether Freshway Foods in Sidney, Ohio, was one of them.

Ohio Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Kaleigh Frazier said the test was on an unopened bag of Freshway romaine shredded lettuce with a sell-by date of May 10, and her department is sending the sample on to federal officials for further testing.

Andrew Smith issued the recall privately on May 7 for lettuce that was shipped in mid-April, she said.

4. Our stuff is safe

As with the spinach outbreak of 2006, other regions are quick to proclaim the safety of their products, even in the absence of any data.

New Jersey State Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher said Friday that fresh romaine lettuce from New Jersey is safe.

"It certainly is an unfortunate coincidence of timing that this recall is occurring just as our farmers’ fresh romaine is coming into the market, but there is no connection between the two."

OK, but why not use the opportunity to explain the food safety steps taken by NJ lettuce growers to ensure microbiologically safe food, rather than saying we have a task force.

5. Blame consumers

Bob LaMendola of the Florida Sun Sentinel writes the E. coli is deadly but preventable by keeping raw meat separate from other foods, cooking meat to 165F, washing produce and hands vigorously.

This has nothing to do with romaine lettuce at salad bars.

After the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to California spinach, the 29th outbreak linked to leafy greens and after years of warning from FDA, California growers formed the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is supposed to have food safety performance standards. Yet the most noticeable achievement since the Agreement has been the containment cone of silence that has descended upon outbreaks involving leafy greens, and an apparent shift in FDA policy that sets epidemiology aside and requires positive samples in unopened product – a ridiculous standard since no one routinely tests for other Shiga-toxin producing E. coli like O145.

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