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E. coli warning narrowed to romaine from some Calif. areas

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Restaurants can resume serving romaine lettuce from all growing regions except the central coastal areas of central and Northern California, federal food safety authorities said Monday evening, greatly narrowing the scope of last week’s blanket warning that any form of the green could be contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that restaurants may need to check with their distributors and suppliers to verify the origin of the romaine they purchase. Consumers, meanwhile, are being advised by the CDC to forgo any romaine whose origin is not definitively known. “If you do not know where the romaine is from, do not eat it,” the agency said in an update on the outbreak.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working with romaine suppliers, processors and distributors to create new labels indicating where the lettuce was grown and handled. “It may take some time before these labels are available,” the CDC said.

The call for new labels marks the first time the FDA has pushed for place of origin information on produce packaging, an important advance in safeguarding the food supply, according to Creighton Magid, head of the Washington, D.C., office for the law firm Dorsey & Whitney. 

"Unlike manufactured products, which can be traced through serial numbers, a consumer generally has no way to know where fresh produce was grown.  That makes tracing the source of an outbreak more difficult, and also prevents limiting recalls of produce to products of a particular farm or region," Magid said in a statement.  "By encouraging place-of-origin labeling for romaine lettuce, the FDA is moving the entire produce industry toward labeling that will make outbreak response more effective and safety warnings to consumers more targeted."

Suppliers had pushed the FDA to narrow the scope of its pre-Thanksgiving warning, noting that romaine harvesting is about to begin in Arizona, Florida, Mexico and some areas of California. Because that lettuce isn’t yet in the supply chain, it cannot be part of the contamination and hence is safe to eat, they argued. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb indicated in tweets last week that he was in agreement.

The contamination has spread to a 12th state, Rhode Island, the CDC said in Monday’s update. The number of Americans who were sickened after eating lettuce has risen by 11, to 43 people, and the number of victims who were hospitalized has risen by three, to 16 people, including one suffering kidney failure. Several dozen poisoning incidents were also reported in Canada.

The tally of victims is highest for California, with 11, followed by New Jersey (nine), Michigan (seven) and New York (five). Two people were sickened in Illinois, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and single incidences of E. coli poisoning were reported in Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

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