SALT LAKE CITY — Officials say Utahns can be confident in purchasing romaine lettuce again.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautioned people last week to only purchase and consume romaine lettuce labeled as being from noncontaminated areas, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food spokesman Jack Wilbur said consumers in Utah can now be "fairly confident" that all lettuce they purchase is safe from the recent E. coli outbreak.
"It took place at the very end of a growing season in the central coast region of California," Wilbur said Thursday, "and then product was pulled off the shelves really immediately. And our folks here in Utah did a great job of complying with the FDA's requests. … By that time, there was a very little, if anything, left in the system from that central coast region of California, so now that's all gone."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website specifically listed Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as the areas E. Coli was traced back to.
Now that the California central coast's growing season is over, Wilbur said, most of Utah's lettuce comes from the area of Yuma, Arizona, and nearby Imperial Valley in California.
"There are no problems currently with those growing regions at all, so people can feel pretty confident that the lettuce that they're getting is, No. 1, not coming from the area where the infection was, and No. 2, that there are no current recalls or reports of problems in the areas that the lettuce is currently coming from," Wilbur said.
The produce industry's plan to label romaine lettuce shipments with harvest dates and regions is still in place, Wilbur said, but will take some time to fully implement.
The labels will eventually be on pallets, boxes and even on the bag itself or in areas where the produce is displayed in grocery stores.
Until then, he said, people can ask employees at restaurants, cafeterias and stores if the romaine lettuce on hand is safe, and they may even know where it came from.
Not only will this be helpful for reassuring customers after the most recent scare, Wilbur said, but also if there are future issues with disease. In that case, distributors and retailers will quickly be able to tell where their lettuce came from, and not be forced to throw away produce that is not from a contaminated region.
After the CDC released its Nov. 20 advisory, Utah wholesale food distributor Nicholas and Co. immediately stopped the sale of all romaine lettuce and items that potentially contained it, according to a press release from the company. It is now carrying romaine lettuce from areas cleared by the FDA.
"We are pleased to be able to return romaine and romaine blended items to our valued customers," said co-CEO Nicole Mouskondis. "Our first priority is the safety of our customers and we took immediate steps to protect them."