5 Dead, 197 Ill with E. coli from Romaine Lettuce Grown in Yuma Region; FDA Still Investigating

Apr 24, 2018

197 people in 35 states have become sick due to contaminated romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma region.  Of those, five people have died and 89 have been hospitalized.  The Federal Drug Administration is investigating the E. coli outbreak, but as KAWC’s Maya Springhawk Robnett reports, the source of the contamination is still unknown…

The following pieces are arranged in order of air date, starting with the most recent.

The following piece aired on 06/06/18:

The Federal Drug Administration recently released a traceback diagram showing the movement of the lettuce from the farms to the points of service.  In tracebacks, investigators look for points of convergence where all the implicated lettuce could have been exposed to a contaminant.  

However, the diagram shows there was no common stop along each supply chain for all the lettuce.  The FDA stated in an official blogpost that “there isn’t a simple or obvious explanation for how this outbreak occurred.”  The agency wrote that the E. coli O157:H7 contamination likely occurred at or close to the Yuma growing region. 

But Paula Rivadeneira, Food Safety and Wildlife Specialist for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Yuma, says she can’t imagine how dozens of fields across the county could have come into contact with the same contaminant.

“The diagram is baffling,” Rivadeneira says.  “How did the same strain of E. coli potentially go into that number of fields? How could it be that all of those fields actually had contamination in them?”

The FDA is still investigating the outbreak, but Yuma’s lettuce season wrapped up more than a month ago, making it difficult to find evidence to shed light on how this outbreak occurred.

The following piece aired on 4/28/18:

98 people in 22 states have become ill due to an E coli outbreak caused by lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region.  KAWC’s Maya Springhawk Robnett reports this strain of E coli has had a higher-than-usual hospitalization rate…

53% of those affected have been hospitalized.  That is higher than the typical E coli hospitalization rate, which is about 30%.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this strain of E coli causes more severe illness due to the kind of Shiga toxin it produces.

The Federal Drug Administration has determined Harrison Farms in Yuma was the source of the whole head lettuce that caused illnesses in Alaska, but most of the cases in the outbreak are not from that particular farm. 

Joli Weiss is with the Arizona Department of Health Services. She says the FDA is working with each state impacted by the outbreak to find the source.

“Because it can go to the Northeast, it goes to a restaurant, it goes to a grocery store, it goes through distribution centers and repacking centers," Weiss explains, "the FDA has a difficult job sometimes trying to trace back all that information.”

This is the largest E coli Shiga-toxin-producing outbreak since 2006 when contaminated spinach caused more than 200 people to become sick. 

The Yuma growing region produces 90% of the leafy green vegetables consumed in the U.S. during the winter months.

The following piece aired on 4/20/18:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now advising citizens not to eat any romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region due to a multi-state E. coli outbreak.

Initially the outbreak was believed to have been caused by chopped romaine lettuce but the CDC is now recommending consumers avoid all romaine lettuce, including whole heads and salad mixes. 

Paula Rivadeniera is a Food Safety and Wildlife Specialist for the University of Arizona in Yuma.  She says even with the many measures farmers take to prevent contamination, one difficulty is keeping wild animals out of the fields.

“It’d be really hard to detect if a bird flies over your field and poops in it and keeps going and maybe they weren’t part of a flock.  Maybe it was one bird,” she explains.

Nearly 90% of all leafy vegetables grown in the nation between November and March are grown in the Yuma area. 

According to the most recent report by the CDC, 53 people in 16 states have been diagnosed with E. coli thus far.

The following piece aired on 4/20/18:

A nationwide E. coli outbreak traced back to the Yuma growing region has now affected more than fifty people.  Agriculture experts say farmers already have stringent food safety measures, but there are technical limits.  KAWC’s Maya Springhawk Robnett reports…

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have expanded the warning from only chopped romaine lettuce to include whole heads and salad mixes with romaine lettuce.   53 people in 16 states have become sick due to the outbreak.

Paul Brierley, the Executive Director with the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, an agriculture research organization based in Yuma, says farmers go to great lengths to prevent contamination in the fields as it is, but there are limitations.

“It’s really important that we identify it both in the field and in the salad plant when you have contamination and that’s, at the moment, it’s not possible to do real-time,” Brierley explains, “because it takes time to get test results back.”

Brierley says his organization is looking at the potential use of military technology to scan the fields for contaminants in real-time.

The following piece aired on 4/16/18:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced late last week that an outbreak of E. coli had been traced to the Yuma, Arizona agricultural region.  KAWC’s Maya Springhawk Robnett reports…

The report stated that there have been thirty-five cases to date in eleven different states. While there have been no deaths, twenty-two of those diagnosed have been hospitalized, three of whom have developed kidney failure. 

Paula Rivadeniera, a Food Safety and Wildlife Specialist for the University of Arizona Yuma Agricultural Center, explains what a Shiga toxin-producing organism is:

“Shiga toxins actually kill your red blood cells,” Rivadeniera says. “So, all of the red blood cells that are dead and not functioning anymore, get stuck in the filtering process in your kidneys and that can lead to kidney failure.”

Rivadeniera researches food safety on behalf of the Yuma agriculture industry.  She says farmers go to great lengths to prevent contamination and she doesn’t believe the source of  outbreak started in the fields.

“I think that farmers are doing incredibly diligent work with their food safety,” she says,” So, I think that when there’s an outbreak, it is important to find out where a crop came from.  But it’s also important to look at the entire process.  Let’s look inside those trucks that do the transport.  Let’s look inside the coolers.  Let’s look at the chlorinated water at the processing facility where they’re chopping it.”

The source of outbreak is believed to be chopped romaine lettuce from the Yuma area, although the investigation is ongoing and no specific farm or field has been identified.