Updated April 27, 2018
Federal investigators are looking for the exact source of an E. coli outbreak stemming from romaine lettuce, and an Alaskan prison may provide a clue to the origin.
Food safety lawyer Bill Marler represents 28 people infected in the E. coli outbreak, including cases related to chopped romaine lettuce served at a Panera Bread restaurant in New Jersey (Marler says he's representing one person with E. coli in Sacramento).
Once lettuce is chopped up and combined en masse and dispersed all over the U.S., Marler says it's challenging to trace the pathogen back to its source.
"It's not as if you're talking about one row of lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona," Marler pointed out. The lettuce is processed, sorted and disseminated. "It may well have gone into multiple supply chains."
But a cluster of cases in Alaska may give public health investigators a break because it involves people who ate whole leaf romaine.
"There are eight prisoners in a prison up in Nome, Alaska, that have E. coli and they've been linked genetically to the cases in the lower 48," Marler said.
Identifying the grower that supplied the Alaskan jail should help federal and state public health officials trace the contamination to a specific farm or source in Arizona. The CDC says at this time no common grower or supplier has been identified.
Scott Horsfall is CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which oversees food-safety programs for lettuce. He said there were no government agricultural inspectors in the field prior to 2006, when E. coli in California-grown spinach killed three people and sickened over two hundred.
"We've developed a set of food safety practices specific to leafy greens that cover water, soil amendments, worker hygiene and environmental assessments — every known risk factor," Horsfall said.
Horsfall said he sees every E. coli outbreak first as a public health concern, but then, afterwards, as a chance to add new strategies to reduce the risk of foodborn disease.
More than seventy percent of lettuce consumed in the U.S. is grown in California and Arizona, much of it in the Salinas Valley. (Many growers shift production to Arizona for several months each winter.) But Horsfall said at this point in the season, lettuce harvest and distribution have shifted back to California and that, by now, lettuce from Arizona has been cleared from grocery store shelves.
This story was updated to reflect the CDC's current count of ill people identified in connection to this case. Since originally reported, the number grew from 53 people in 16 states to 98 people in 22 states.