An outbreak of cases of E. coli linked to contaminated romaine lettuce is still being investigated in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and several U.S. states. Now that evidence indicates that the source of contamination can be narrowed down to a number of suspected areas in California, many restaurateurs across Canada are asking: Is romaine lettuce safe to serve?
Below is some guidance for restaurants and other foodservice businesses as they navigate the ongoing E. coli outbreak investigation and make decisions based on their own operations.
Make Sure You Have Up-to-Date Information from the Canadian Government
The Public Health Agency of Canada is collaborating with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada, as well as the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. CDC) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA) to investigate the ongoing outbreak.
At this point, government agencies in Canada and the United States are still investigating individual patient cases and following the trace back leads they have gathered. It is expected that the investigations will remain open for the next few weeks.
Here is the information that the Canadian government has released to date about the ongoing investigation:
- Nov. 20: PHAC released a public health notice advising consumers in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick to avoid eating romaine lettuce and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce until more is known about the outbreak of E. coli infections reported in those provinces, and several U.S. states. PHAC is continuing to update this notice as the situation evolves.
- Nov. 23: CFIA released a statement from the Deputy Chief Food Safety Officer about its ongoing investigation into the current outbreak of E. coli infections associated with the consumption of romaine lettuce in Canada and the United States. The statement noted that CFIA is looking for a small amount of lettuce contaminated with E. coli O157 amidst the large volume of safe romaine lettuce that is purchased, served and consumed in Canada on a daily basis.
- Nov. 26: CFIA released a statement in response to new information from the U.S. FDA pointing to romaine lettuce harvested in parts of California as the potential source of the outbreak of E. coli O157 that has resulted in illnesses on both sides of the border. CFIA announced that the Canadian government, working in collaboration with industry, is taking the following immediate actions in order to provide confidence that produce purchased in Canada remains safe to consume:
- The CFIA is advising the food industry, including importers, not to import romaine lettuce from the suspect areas identified in the U.S. FDA’s investigation, until further notice.
- The CFIA will implement additional control measures to verify that products from the areas identified in the U.S. FDA’s investigation are not being admitted to Canada. This includes, for example, greater scrutiny of product destined for Canada.
- Nov. 27: CFIA released a follow-up notice to industry advising distributors, importers, restaurants, retailers, and institutions not to distribute, import, sell, serve, or use romaine lettuce and products containing romaine lettuce harvested in parts of California that have been identified in the U.S. FDA’s statement due to potential contamination with E. coli O157. The notice also advised companies that are unsure if they have the affected products in their possession “to contact their supplier or industry trade group” and if the origin cannot be identified, “do not sell, use, or serve the product.”
- Nov. 29: PHAC updated its public health notice to reflect additional findings and details about the ongoing outbreak investigation, including actions taken by CFIA to ensure affected product is not available in the Canadian marketplace and to prevent the import of romaine lettuce from the affected U.S. growing region into Canada. PHAC updated its advice to consumers in the affected provinces of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, telling them to continue to avoid eating romaine lettuce and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce unless they can identify that the romaine lettuce being purchased did not come from an affected growing region in California outlined on the U.S. FDA’s website.
Make Sure You Know Where Your Romaine Lettuce is From
CFIA is requiring that anyone importing romaine lettuce into Canada only buy from growing areas not affected by the outbreak.
The U.S. FDA has identified the growing regions of central and northern California (summer production areas) as the most likely sources of the outbreak. Other areas such as California’s Imperial Valley and Riverside area, as well as Yuma, Arizona, Florida and Mexico (winter production areas) have not been identified as implicated growing areas. Businesses that are importing, selling or serving romaine lettuce from the United States should continue to check the information on the FDA website for updates.
Importers should have documentation from their suppliers, which clearly indicate which production area romaine lettuce is coming from. This could include invoices, email or any other document which clearly states the production area. Importers should be aware that CFIA, Canada Border Services Agency or their customers might request this information.
CFIA is not requiring any additional information to be applied to consumer packages, commercial or food service packaging or bulk cases.
Foodservice operators can expect to field consumer questions regarding the source of romaine lettuce on their menus.
Is Your Business Still Wondering: “Is Romaine Lettuce Safe to Serve”?
If you have any questions or concerns about any of the information above as you determine the most appropriate course of action for your business, you can reach out to Lauren van den Berg, Restaurants Canada National Vice President, Government Affairs, at Lauren@restaurantscanada.org or David Lefebvre, Restaurants Canada Vice President, Federal and Quebec, at DLefebvre@restaurantscanada.org.