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Arizona's Romaine Lettuce E. Coli Outbreak Has Ripple Effects

Brandt Bates
The FDA and CDC are advising people to not buy or eat romaine lettuce unless they know it's not from Arizona.

Thursday AM Update: The CDC reports one person from California has died in connection to this E. coli outbreak from contaminated romaine lettuce. At last count, there are 121 cases with 52 hospitalizations. The cases now span 25 states. 

Friday PM Update: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 98 people are now ill from E. coli contaminated romaine lettuce. The cases span 22 states.

On Friday, top leaders with the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced they're one step closer to figuring out where the contaminated lettuce specifically came from.

The FDA has identified Harrison Farms in Yuma, Arizona as the source of the whole head romaine that sickened 8 people in an Alaskan correctional facility. Investigators say they don't know specifically where in the food supply chain the lettuce was contaminated.

The investigation is ongoing for the rest of the cases, in which bagged, chopped romaine lettuce was eaten. The agencies say they've narrowed it down to about two dozen fields. 

So at this point, the agencies are still advising people to not eat or buy romaine lettuce unless they can confirm it's not form the Yuma, Arizona growing region. 

Original Post: The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the contaminated lettuce came from Yuma, Arizona growing region, not California. Still, both agencies advise that if you don’t know where your lettuce came from, throw it away. That’s not great news for the Salinas Valley; the region grows the majority of the nation’s lettuce.

KAZU’s Krista Almanzan spoke with Erika Mahoney in the studio to talk about the local impact of this outbreak.

Krista Almanzan (KA): So how are we supposed to know where our lettuce comes from?

Erika Mahoney (EM): The responsibility ultimately falls on the consumer to call, to ask the store manager where they bought the lettuce from, and from that there's talk in the industry to make it easier to figure out where your lettuce comes from. And one idea that has been floating around is to create some sort of product label a product sticker that says something like 'grown in California.' As for now a lot of produce companies here are just working to communicate with consumers that the romaine lettuce grown here in California is safe and they've done that on Twitter, on Facebook on their websites, trying to get that message and information across. Now keep in mind a lot of the companies based here in the Salinas Valley do also grow in Arizona, in the winter, however. So now that we've reached April, most of the lettuce, including romaine, is coming from California.

KA: So what are you hearing from produce companies here in the Salinas Valley? Is this having an effect on sales?

EM: I reached out to multiple produce companies with that question. All of them declined to do an actual interview one saying they just don't want their brand to be associated with the outbreak. One person who did do an interview is Scott Horsfall and he's the CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the agency essentially focuses on food safety. They actually formed in 2007 following the E. coli outbreak that was traced back to spinach grown right here in this part of California. So while the industry doesn't want to focus on money when people are getting sick, Scott Horsfall did say yes, you know the first step is always to pull the potentially contaminated product off the shelves.

“So you know there's a cost to that, obviously. But the important thing is to just get it out of there so people don't keep getting sick. Then there's the impact on the ongoing market. And so far that hasn't had a dramatically negative impact on the market. Products continue to move and we've made that transition to the Salinas Valley and the Central Coast and other areas. And then there's the long-term impact, the impact that it has on consumer confidence and consumer awareness and trust in the food supply, and you know, remains to be seen how much of an impact that will have,” Horsfall says.

EM: And at this point everyone is just waiting for the FDA to determine exactly where the contaminated lettuce came from and to name the company.

KA: Yeah, the CDC first announced the outbreak back on April 10th, we heard about it from the FDA on April 14th. They quickly narrowed it down to Yuma, Arizona as a source so why is it taking so long to identify the company where the lettuce came from.

EM: I talked with a spokesperson for the FDA who said nailing down the exact source takes time. It's especially complicated when the outbreak you know when the E. coli infections are being reported in multiple states. And that is the case with this outbreak.

KA: And will the investigation they're doing also determine how the lettuce got contaminated with E.coli in the first place?

EM: The FDA spokesperson said yes that's the goal. But it depends on what the investigators can find.

At last report, 84 people in 19 states have gotten sick due to this E. coli outbreak from lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.