That romaine lettuce in your fridge? You better throw it out, CDC says

Romaine lettuce being harvested in Salinas. Nearly 40 people in the United States have been made sick from contaminated romaine lettuce out of Yuma, Arizona.
Romaine lettuce being harvested in Salinas. Nearly 40 people in the United States have been made sick from contaminated romaine lettuce out of Yuma, Arizona. Associated Press file

Federal health officials have warned consumers to avoid eating romaine lettuce because of possible E. coli contamination, bringing the romaine harvest in California and Arizona to a grinding halt.

Tim Baloian, chief executive officer of Baloian Farms in Fresno County, has more than 1,200, 40-pound boxes of recently picked romaine lettuce sitting in cold storage with no place to ship it. And that doesn’t include the several hundred acres of romaine his workers were scheduled to start picking on Friday. That acreage may end up being disced into the ground.

“We have been doing this for 45 years and I am very confident our romaine is safe to eat,” Baloian said. “But we can’t do anything with it right now.”

Baloian and other romaine lettuce farmers have no choice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday issued an alert to consumers nationwide to stop eating romaine lettuce regardless of where it was grown or where you bought it.

The far-reaching action came after an E. coli outbreak made 32 people sick in 11 states. Ten of those illnesses have been reported in California. Investigators still don’t know where the source of contamination came from and until they do, they are advising consumers to stay away from romaine lettuce.

Consumers who have any type of romaine lettuce in their home should not eat it and should throw it away, even if some of it was eaten and no one has gotten sick,” the CDC said in a statement.

The warning applies to all types of romaine lettuce, including whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, and bags and boxes of pre-cut lettuce and salad mixes that contain romaine, including baby romaine, spring mix, and Caesar salad.

“If you do not know if the lettuce is romaine or whether a salad mix contains romaine, do not eat it and throw it away,” the CDC said.

This is the second widespread outbreak linked to romaine lettuce in less than a year. This past Spring, an outbreak of E. coli was tied to romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona. That outbreak killed five and made 210 people sick in 36 states.

Baloian understands the need for precautions, but he and others in the industry are hoping federal investigators will quickly rule out certain areas from the scope of the investigation.

Major romaine lettuce growing areas include the Central Coast, Imperial Valley, Coachella and Yuma. Fresno County is a minor supplier.

“We have a very short harvest window and if we don’t know more in about four or five days, we may have to leave that crop in the ground,” Baloian said.

Cory Lunde, spokesman for Western United Growers, an advocacy organization representing fresh produce farmers, said the romaine lettuce harvest moves from one region of the state to another. Last month it was coming from the Salinas and Santa Maria areas, but the harvest is now shifting to Yuma and the Imperial Valley.

Western Growers president and chief executive officer Tom Nassif issued the following statement about the outbreak:

“Our hearts go out to individuals and families impacted by the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine, and our romaine growers and handlers are cooperating fully with federal and state health agencies to identify the source of the contamination,” Nassif said.

He also said that it’s important to acknowledge that a number of regions in current production were not harvesting or shipping romaine at the onset of the outbreak and could not be the source of the specific E. coli strain identified in the illnesses.

“In light of this evidence, we urge the government’s health agencies to work with stakeholders to quickly narrow the scope of the investigation, and to remove these regions from the comprehensive advisory as soon as the safety of the public can be ensured,” he said.