Just when you thought that your two-week-long Caesar fast was over, the FDA admits that agents on the romaine-lettuce E. coli hunt are still struggling to “explain the entirety of the nationwide outbreak” — an outbreak that, as it happens, the CDC has now expanded to encompass some 98 cases in 22 states. (For context: The count last Tuesday — after FDA head Scott Gottlieb reassured everyone that romaine has a “short shelf life” — was 84 people in 19 states.)
Initially, the agency believed that only bags of pre-chopped romaine were at risk. But the recall quickly grew to include all types, from whole heads to hearts and mixes that contain the leaves, while federal investigators said that they’d pinpointed a single farm in Yuma, Arizona, as the supplier. Suggesting Yuma was hardly a stretch (most of America’s wintertime romaine is in fact grown there), and the FDA was able to narrow it down to a producer called Harrison Farms. Sounds like good progress, except the Feds still lack a very important piece of this puzzle, which, to just quote the FDA, is “where in the supply chain the contamination occurred.”
They’re busy “examining all possibilities,” including every point along the “growing, harvesting, packaging, and distribution chain.” But arguably worse is the fact that the FDA now thinks that there’s another source besides Harrison Farms and, for that matter, maybe even Yuma. The Yuma region’s lettuce season has ended, and Harrison’s last harvest date was on March 16, meaning a bag of its romaine would likely have wilted away by now. The incubation period for the illness caused by E. coli runs anywhere from a day to a week, yet the FDA is still expecting reports of more cases. For the ones not tied to Harrison Farms, all agents have to go on is that most sick people so far have eaten restaurant salads that used bagged romaine. Maybe to stave off a public freak-out, the Feds add that they have “identified dozens of other fields” as possible sources.
In the meantime, the FDA still recommends asking your local grocery store, salad purveyor, or any other “foodservice establishments” where their romaine lettuce originated. “If you cannot confirm the source,” the recall notice warns, “do not buy it or eat it.”