The Current Outbreak with Toxic E. coli in Romaine Lettuce

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

There are 121 confirmed cases across 25 states in the E. coli outbreak from eating romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region. There have been 52 hospitalizations from the outbreak strain of E. coli O157: H7. Fourteen (14) people have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure and there has been 1 death. Additional cases are expected.

Yuma County ranks second among U.S. counties for lettuce and spinach production and is the major winter production area for leafy greens in the country. Currently Yuma is finished with production (which moves back to California) but effects of the outbreak are still lingering.

So far, only one farm has been identified as a source of the outbreak strain on whole romaine. Other farms supplying romaine lettuce for chopped, bagged products are being investigated (over a dozen fields).

What makes this more alarming is that Yuma, Arizona growers are part of a Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and follow strict produce food safety guidelines.

In our Eastern seaboard region, there is significant lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens production in New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Delmarva produces significant amounts of spinach but this is mostly for processing. Leafy greens are an important and profitable crop for many small growers throughout our area.

Potential sources of the toxic E. coli strains include cattle manure, wildlife droppings from animals such as deer, and contaminated irrigation water.

Growers of leafy greens are advised to revisit their food safety plans and take steps to eliminate possible contamination of product with E. coli.