Faced with a multistate outbreak of E. coli, federal officials have warned consumers to avoid eating romaine lettuce, throw away what they have and clean out places the lettuce was stored.
Although there have been no reported cases in Georgia, local shoppers will have to do without romaine until health officials give the all clear.
The food safety alert issued Tuesday covered all brands and varieties of romaine — including whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, bagged and boxed precut lettuce and salad mixes containing romaine — because officials have not yet determined a specific source for the problem, said Peter Cassell, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“It has been difficult being able to tell (the source), so we want to be careful and to give a general warning,” he said.
Sometimes officials can peg an outbreak to one farm, one company or a single distributor and suggest that consumers avoid just the potentially tainted products, but the investigation takes time, Cassell said. “Over time, we’ll be able to narrow it down.”
The romaine alert, first issued Tuesday by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also advised retailers and restaurants that until health officials learn more about the outbreak, they should not sell or serve any romaine and should simply toss out what they have.
Retailers and restaurants nationwide reacted quickly by removing items containing romaine from store shelves and menus.
As soon as they were informed of the outbreak, Publix employees began pulling grocery items from store shelves.
“Food safety is a number one priority for us at Publix,” said Brenda Reid, spokeswoman for the Atlanta Division. “We were notified of the recall Tuesday and immediately went into action to determine how many items we have in stock containing romaine lettuce.”
Publix stores disposed of more than 90 specific grocery items, Reid said. On Wednesday, store employees were in the process of filling empty shelves with other types of lettuce and greens. “We want to make sure that our customers have the options they want. Customers may return the recalled items and exchange them for other items or get a full refund,” Reid said.
Kroger stores have also been continuously monitoring the outbreak and pulling items from store shelves, said Felix Turner, spokesman for the Atlanta division. He said in-store signage would let customers know about the outbreak.
The CDC further advised consumers who are unsure if an item contains romaine to throw it away. Like grocery stores and restaurants, consumers are advised to wash and use a bleach solution to sanitize the areas where any romaine lettuce was stored so that the bacteria is not transfered to other stored foods.
Illnesses from the E. coli outbreak began between appearing on Oct. 8, according to the CDC. There have been 32 reported cases of illness in 11 states, the majority in California and others in the Northeast and Great Lakes area. While 13 individuals have been hospitalized, there are no reported deaths. There are also 18 reported cases in Canada.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there had been no “confirmed cases” of the illness caused by the lettuce in Georgia, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health.
The E. coli bacteria in this outbreak is similar to the strain found in a 2017 outbreak in the U.S. that was linked to leafy greens. It is a different strain than the one linked to romaine grown in the Yuma, Calif. area earlier this year. This particular strain may cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fever. While some infections are mild, other cases may cause severe illness including kidney failure.
With the CDC investigation ongoing, the outbreak falls during a particularly challenging time with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching. “It is that time of year when many people are dining out or having gatherings with lots of people with various foods,” said Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
Late Wednesday morning, the association sent an advisory directing more than 6,700 restaurants across the state to stop serving romaine or salads premixed with romaine, Bremer said. Most restaurants will remove those items from the menu and may provide a substitute, she said, but she didn’t foresee the outbreak having a negative impact on restaurant business.
“I think that it has a positive impact when restaurants are being proactive about people’s health and removing products that are a danger to them,” she said. “No one in the restaurant business likes to get anybody sick. It is really bad for business.”
Other 2018 food recalls
In 2018, everything from breakfast cereals, cheeses and ham biscuits to salads, melons, vegetable trays and nuts were linked to food illnesses caused by pathogens. These are some of the recent major recalls that affected Georgians.
Nov. 17, 2018: JBS Tolleson recalled about 100,000 pounds of bulk raw ground beef for potential contamination with E. coli bacteria. The company also had recalled 6.9 million pounds of beef products in October because the meat was associated with a Salmonella outbreak that had sickened 246 people. Georgia was among the states where the products were sold.
Nov. 15, 2018: Jennie-O Turkey Store recalled 91,388 pounds of raw ground turkey products after a package tested positive for the strain of Salmonella bacteria that had sickened more than 160 people in 35 states. As of Nov. 5, 63 people had been hospitalized and one death was reported linked to consuming the products. Georgia reported two cases.
Nov. 5, 2018: Conagra recalled 2.4 million boxes of Duncan Hines cake mixes after health officials found Salmonella in a sample that may be linked to a Salmonella outbreaks that were being investigated by CDC and the Food and Drug Administration. While the mixes were sold throughout the country, there were no reported illnesses in Georgia.
October 2018: Johnston County Hams recalled more than 89,000 pounds of ready-to-eat ham products due to possible contamination with Listeria bacteria. In response, Callie’s Charleston Biscuits recalled ham biscuits, some of which were sold in Georgia.
September, 2018: More than 130,000 pounds of ground beef was recalled because of possible E. coli contamination, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service announced. The move came after the CDC identified 17 illnesses and one death associated with the Cargill Meat Solution products. The products were sold in Target stores throughout the Atlanta area and in some other Georgia locations.
August 2018: Gravel Ridge Farms recalled cage-free eggs because of potential contamination with Salmonella. The eggs were distributed primarily in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
July 2018: Pepperidge Farm recalled Goldfish Crackers, Flowers Foods recalled some brands of Swiss Rolls and Breaks, and Mondelez Global recalled some Ritz Cracker Sandwich and Rita Bits products after a whey powder supplier said the ingredient might be contaminated with salmonella. Some of the products were sold in Georgia.
June 2018: Kellogg Company recalled Honey Smacks cereal because of concerns about Salmonella contamination. More than 100 people were apparently sickened after eating the cereal, including people in Georgia.
June 2018: The FDA was investigating a multistate outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region of California. As of June 27, 2018, the CDC had reported that 210 people in 36 states had become ill, 96 were hospitalized and five died. Georgia had about a dozen reported cases tied to the contamination.
See other recalls affecting Georgia: http://agr.georgia.gov/recalls.aspx
Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Food and Drug Administration; the U.S. Department of Agriculture.