The latest on the big E. coli outbreak

It’s now safe to eat some romaine lettuce, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says after last week’s recall of the product due to potential contamination with E. coli O157:H7.

As the investigation has continued, the FDA has found that the contaminated romaine comes from parts of California that grow romaine over the summer months — specifically the central and northern regions of the state.

“The outbreak appears to be related to ‘end of season’ romaine lettuce harvested from the areas,” the FDA said in a statement.

Initially, authorities requested a recall of all romaine products and advised consumers to throw out any they had purchased. With many Americans planning Thanksgiving Day feasts the week of the recalls, it was imperative to spread the news quickly, so that romaine could be taken off the menu.

The FDA has also identified similarities to this outbreak with an earlier E. coli outbreak that was linked to romaine lettuce and other leafy greens.

“Through laboratory studies we have identified that the E. coli O157:H7 strain causing the outbreak is similar to the one that produced and outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in the fall of 2017 that also occurred in the U.S. and Canada,” the FDA said.

After a detailed traceback investigation, the earlier outbreak was linked to contaminated irrigation canal water. The water had tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, which was suspected to have entered the irrigation system after runoff from a nearby cattle feedlot drained into the canals. E. coli O157:H7 is commonly associated with beef and food that has been contaminated with cattle feces.

What’s next?

Over the next few years, most farms will be required by the FDA to test water for pathogens through the Produce Safety Rule of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Earlier this year, the deadline for compliance with the rule was pushed back, while additional water testing methods were also approved.

The FDA has called upon the romaine lettuce industry to provide greater transparency in the form of labels that explain where a product was grown and when it was harvested, helping consumers to avoid infection in the event of future recalls.

About the strain

In the U.S. and Canada, 65 reported illnesses have been associated with the current outbreak so far.

The strain involved, E. coli O157:H7, is a Shiga toxin-producing strain, meaning it comes with the risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome, a life-threatening kidney condition. The risks are higher with the very young, the elderly and anyone who is immunocompromised.

In most cases, symptoms include diarrhea and severe cramping. Usually, it wraps up in a few days without treatment, but it’s best to consult a doctor if you suspect you are infected, especially if there is blood present in the diarrhea.

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