FDA Romaine Tests Find No Worrisome Bacteria

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The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that its testing of romaine lettuce in the Yuma, Ariz., growing region, where lettuce linked to a major E. coli outbreak in 2018 was grown, found just one sample with E. coli and that it was a type that doesn’t cause illness.

The agency said that the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) discovered during the testing of 118 samples was a “nonpathogenic” strain. It also said it found no salmonella during its testing, which started in December 2018.

“The findings of this assignment suggest that there was no widespread STEC or salmonella contamination of romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region during the period when the sampling occurred,” the agency said in its report.

But Consumer Reports’ food safety experts say that the FDA’s sample size was limited and that the agency tested for only two pathogens. As a result, consumers shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of complacency. 

“One hundred eighteen isn’t a lot of samples, especially given the massive amount of romaine sold each year,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at CR.

The FDA said in its report that it tested for STEC and salmonella because these are the two pathogens “most closely associated with leafy vegetables.” It didn’t respond to a request for further comment.

The bulk of the supply of romaine in the U.S. in the winter months comes from the Yuma region, and romaine grown there was linked to the E. coli outbreak in 2018 that sickened more than 200 people in 36 states. Nearly 100 people were hospitalized, and five died. Romaine was also linked to two other E. coli outbreaks in 2017 and 2018. 

Leafy greens have been tied to other problems as well. Consumer Reports recently tested 284 samples of leafy greens from grocery stores and found that six were contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, highlighting that the leafy greens industry could be doing even more to ensure the safety of these products.

What Consumers Should Know

Leafy greens are a nutrition powerhouse, packed with important vitamins and antioxidants.

Nonetheless, their involvement in these multiple outbreaks may understandably lead consumers to question their safety. 

There are changes taking place that may help.

“As a result of the 2018 outbreaks involving romaine lettuce, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement programs in California and Arizona have taken action to strengthen our food safety practices by implementing new, more stringent standards to reduce risk when it comes to water used to grow leafy greens,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. “We also now require that leafy greens be farmed further from animal operations.” 

Teressa Lopez, administrator of the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, added, “We’re obviously happy that the [FDA] surveillance sampling showed no positive results, but education and improvement is an ongoing effort. Our growers eat their produce themselves, they feed it to their families, and safety is important to us all.”

And in its report, the FDA noted that it is considering “a longer-term environmental study to identify and control risks that will prevent future outbreaks, with the ultimate goal of protecting consumers.”

For the time being, CR advises most consumers to enjoy their salads, but people who are at high risk for complications from food poisoning—the elderly, infants and young children, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems—may want to stick with cooked greens.

“If you cook greens until they are fully wilted, they’re likely to have been heated enough to kill any bacteria that may be present,” Rogers says. 

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