Restaurants and supermarkets across the US and Canada have suspended the use of romaine lettuce amid an ongoing investigation into a widespread outbreak of E.coli.
At least two people were killed and 58 sickened by E.coli outbreaks in Canada and the US, which authorities in Canada have linked to romaine lettuce.
Compass Group, the US’s largest food service company, said it has suspended the use of romaine lettuce in all operations.
The firm, which supplies food to corporate cafes, hospitals and schools across the US, announced it had alerted its distributors and recommended “alternative leafy greens for use in the business”.
“This is an indefinite hold until the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (USCDCP) provides more information,” it said.
Fast food chain Wendy’s said they had also removed salads containing romaine lettuce temporarily until more information is available.
Restaurant chain Chipotle said it would still serve romaine lettuce but keep a close eye on the recall and its suppliers.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the grocery chain Sobeys, which operates 1,500 stores under different names, said it has pulled more than 300 romaine lettuce products from store shelves.
Last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) confirmed that it was investigating 41 cases of illness linked to E.coli across the country from November and December.
It said in all at least 58 people in both the US and Canada had been sickened and two – one in California and one in Canada – had died.
PHAC added that it had also linked at least 17 reports of illnesses in 13 US states to the outbreak.
Most patients reported eating romaine lettuce before they became ill and PHAC said “individuals reported eating romaine lettuce at home, as well as in prepared salads purchased at grocery stores, restaurants and food chains”.
The USCDCP said it was not yet ready to blame the American outbreak on the leafy green but both outbreaks appear to have been caused by related strains of bacteria, suggesting the possibility of a shared source.
James Rogers, director of Food Safety and Research in the US, said although health authorities had not confirmed the source of the outbreak, shoppers should avoid the lettuce as a precaution.
“Even though we can’t say with 100% certainty that romaine lettuce is the cause of the E.coli outbreak in the US, a great degree of caution is appropriate given that lettuce is almost always consumed raw,” he said.
He added that the widespread nature of the US outbreak suggests that the cause was not limited to a restaurant or particular area.
“When we see this pattern of illnesses, we certainly would default to thinking that this was a commercially distributed product that was contaminated,” he said.
However, Big Produce – a large group of distribution and farming associations – has hit out at the vague public health warnings about romaine lettuce and said authorities have so far been unable to pinpoint a specific supplier as the source of the outbreak.
The group said that the premature blaming of romaine lettuce had unfairly hit farmers who supply it to the restaurants and supermarkets who have suspended its use.
“The USCDC has not identified what food likely caused this foodborne illness. No public agency has contacted any romaine lettuce grower, shipper or processor and requested that they either stop shipping or recall product already in the marketplace,” it said
“Even if this outbreak is actually confirmed to be caused by romaine lettuce, it’s important to recognise this is a highly perishable product with a limited usable shelf life and it’s highly unlikely a specific affected lot would still be available for sale or in a home refrigerator with the US illness being reported on 8 December 8 and the last Canadian illness reported 12 December.”
The statement was signed by Untied Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers, California Leafy Greens Agreement and Arizona Leafy Greens Agreement.