A previously undisclosed E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce sickened nearly two dozen people between July and early September, the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday — a delayed announcement one food safety lawyer called a “lie to the public in all respects.”
Illnesses associated with the outbreak infected 23 people across 12 states from July 12 to Sept. 8, according to the FDA. No patients died of their illnesses, and officials say there is no ongoing public health risk.
“When romaine lettuce was identified as the likely source of the outbreak, the available data at the time indicated that the outbreak was not ongoing and romaine lettuce eaten by sick people was past its shelf life and no longer available for sale,” the FDA wrote Thursday. “The FDA is communicating details about the outbreak at this time to help ensure full awareness by the public and to highlight the ongoing importance of industry actions to help ensure the safety of leafy greens.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the FDA of the outbreak in mid-September and suspected leafy greens were the culprit on Sept. 19, according to Brian Katzowitz, a health communication specialist at the CDC. Both agencies determined romaine was the likely cause on Oct. 2.
Asked why the agencies waited until Halloween to make a public announcement, Katzowitz told The Washington Post that “there are a few variables to consider when posting an outbreak, but the CDC generally posts outbreak warnings when there is something actionable for consumers to do.”
Bill Marler, a prominent food safety lawyer from Seattle, asserted that it was negligent for the FDA and the CDC to delay their public announcement. About 75,000 people are infected with E. coli in the United States each year, Marler said, and because of the diverse eating habits of those affected, it’s rare for the CDC to determine a singular source.
By not announcing their findings immediately, Marler said, these agencies prioritized shielding the romaine industry over informing consumers of a public safety risk.
“If I eat romaine lettuce, and I found out romaine lettuce poisoned 11 people and put them in the hospital, I may not want to eat romaine lettuce,” Marler said. “It’s a lie to the public in all respects. People who are in charge of our public health are not telling the public what’s going on.”
Marler said the latest cluster of romaine-related infections shares notable similarities with the two major E. coli outbreaks from the spring and fall of last year. A March 2018 outbreak, which sickened 210 people across the country and left five dead, was linked to romaine grown in the Yuma, Ariz., area. The outbreaks were caused by contamination of an E. coli strain known as O157:H7. It produces a Shiga toxin that, in severe cases, can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure.
“All of those outbreaks share the same fact pattern as this one — the only difference is they decided not to tell us about this one,” Marler said. “Pick whatever excuse you want, but whatever it is, it’s a ridiculous excuse.”
The revelation comes as the CDC announced a separate outbreak of salmonella infections linked to ground beef. The agency said Friday it was investigating 10 reported cases of “Salmonella Dublin” spanning six states, where victims experienced illnesses that “are more severe than expected for salmonella.”
One person died of the salmonella outbreak in California and eight people have been hospitalized, the CDC said. Ill patients have reported eating different types and brands of ground beef “purchased from many locations.” Those affected, whose ages range between 48 to 74, became sick sometime between Aug. 8 and Sept. 22.
“Of nine ill people with information available, eight (89%) were hospitalized, which is much higher than we would expect forSalmonellainfections,” the agency wrote. “The hospitalization rate is usually about 20%. . . . In five (50%) ill people,Salmonellawas found in samples of blood, which indicates their illnesses may have been more severe.”