Death by salad. It’s not the title of a recently found Agatha Christie and thankfully not yet the outcome of the most recent produce-bin-clearing announcement from the Centers for Disease Control. Two days before Thanksgiving, the CDC warned consumers not to eat romaine, which has been linked to 43 cases of Escherichia coli infection in 12 states, and 22 in three Canadian provinces. One person suffered kidney failure, and 16 were hospitalized due to a bacteria identified as E. coli 0157:H7, which causes persistent diarrhea and vomiting. So far, Santa Barbara County has not had any patients with this most-recent bout of contamination, County Public Health announced today.
In June, the same E. coli strain caused five deaths linked to Yuma, Arizona-grown romaine, though the CDC stated the two outbreaks are “not related.” It does find a relationship between the current outbreak and one a year ago involving “leafy greens” that lasted from about November 5, 2017 to January 25, 2018. In that outbreak, one Californian died, nine in the U.S. were hospitalized, and 25 infected.
The Centers for Disease Control narrowed down the current contamination on Monday to “Central Coastal growing regions” of Northern and Central California, which includes Santa Barbara County whose romaine harvests are concluded for the most part. The CDC Safety Alert states romaine grown outside the Central Coast — or in places like the desert areas in California’s Imperial and Riverside counties; near Yuma, Arizona; or in Florida and Mexico — are not part of the outbreak, nor is romaine grown hydroponically or in greenhouses.
Consumers are advised to check labels on romaine or the grocer’s bin to determine the origin of the greens. The romaine should be avoided if its origin is unknown, or if the mixture of lettuces in a bag is unknown. In the home, drawers and shelves in refrigerators that contained romaine should be cleaned with warm, soapy water, followed by sanitizing with a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 gallon of water.
The outbreak began on October 8 and the last reported illness started on October 31, according to the CDC’s Food Safety Alert dated November 26. The Shiga-toxin producing E. coli has a two- to eight-day incubation period, but no single source or lettuce grower has been identified. The counties implicated are Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Ventura.
It can take two to three weeks between exposure and a report to the agency. Of the gap between the October findings and the November 20 announcement, CDC spokesperson Brittary Behm explained that the public health agency began examining cases at the end of October and sent its warning within three weeks, while the lettuce was still being sold.