Don't eat romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, FDA warns

By Helena Bottemiller Evich

The FDA on Friday issued a broad warning to American consumers, urging them to not eat romaine lettuce harvested in Salinas, Calif., as federal officials continue to investigate an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak across 16 states tied to the green.

The move comes almost exactly a year after health officials in 2018 warned consumers to not eat romaine lettuce of any kind amid another E. coli outbreak that spanned several states in the U.S. and Canada — an unusually sweeping warning from the agency that came just days before Thanksgiving.

FDA was more specific in linking the issue to Salinas, Calif., an area known as "America's Salad Bowl."

The agency said the E. coli O157:H7 strains from patients in this latest outbreak are similar to strains associated with previous romaine lettuce cases from fall 2017 and fall 2018.

The reoccurrence of such outbreaks have led to calls for stricter safety standards for produce, particularly for oversight over water used in growing crops like romaine that are usually consumed raw.

Consumers may not be able to easily identify where their lettuce is from. Companies can voluntarily label where their lettuce is grown. The public shouldn't eat romaine lettuce if they cannot determine its origin, FDA advises.

"Consumers ordering salad containing romaine at a restaurant or at a salad bar should ask the staff whether the romaine came from Salinas," the agency said. "If it did, or they do not know, do not eat it."

The broad warning against one of America's most ubiquitous vegetables comes as health officials have been unable to pinpoint the source of the outbreak, which has sickened at least 40 people so far.

"Currently, the FDA does not have enough traceback information to identify the specific source of the contamination that would allow us to request a targeted recall from specific growers," FDA said in an update to consumers.

The FDA didn't issue a recall. Instead, the agency asked that shippers, distributors, retailers and restaurants voluntarily stop selling romaine from the region.

"At this stage in the investigation, the most efficient way to ensure that contaminated romaine is off the market would be for industry to voluntarily withdraw product grown in Salinas, and to withhold distribution of Salinas romaine for the remainder of the growing season in Salinas. FDA has made this request of industry," the FDA said.