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Statement from the Deputy Chief Food Safety Officer

November 23, 2018

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is conducting a food safety investigation into the current outbreak of E. coli O157 illnesses associated with the consumption of romaine lettuce in Canada and the United States.

Protecting Canadians’ health from food borne illnesses is the CFIA’s highest priority. We take prompt and immediate action when any contaminated food is found in the marketplace.

The illnesses that were detected as part of this E. coli O157 outbreak occurred over a period of a few weeks from mid-October to early November. The challenge for food safety investigators is identifying the specific origin of the product, farm and date of harvest for romaine lettuce that was in the eastern Canadian market at that time.

Working in collaboration with provincial and federal health partners, the CFIA begins its trace back process based on the food history of patients collected by public health officials. This information helps us identify common products, grocery stores or restaurants among those who fell ill. Once these points are established, further investigation is conducted into common suppliers, distributors, or wholesalers all the way back to the source farm and harvest date. If the source can be identified, the investigation involves verifying that product that is currently in the marketplace from that grower is safe.

In the case of the current situation, epidemiological evidence has pointed to romaine lettuce as the common product. However, no common source of contamination has been identified so far. All products sampled as part of this investigation have tested negative for E. coli O157 and we have not been able to identify any contaminated product in the Canadian marketplace.

The delay between eating the food, the onset of symptoms, and being able to link the case to a particular cluster of illnesses is equal, and often times longer, than the shelf life of the product that caused the illnesses. This means that by the time an investigation starts into potential food items, the perishable goods are no longer in the market place or available for testing.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that we are 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.

In fact, since April 1st, 2017, the CFIA has also tested more than 2000 samples of imported fresh vegetables and salads, including romaine lettuce and pre-packaged salads containing romaine lettuce as part of its regular microbiological surveillance program.

The fact that there have been no positive results despite this level of testing confirms that lettuce has a very low level of contamination.

We know Canadians want reassurances about the safety of the foods they eat and feed their families. This is why the CFIA has increased its sampling and testing of romaine lettuce across Canada in light of the current situation. The sampling program involves romaine lettuce from different growing regions and different harvest periods.

The CFIA is also working in close collaboration with federal and provincial health partners and our United States counterparts in an effort to identify how product is contaminated so that the root cause can be addressed. This work is ongoing and we are committed to keeping Canadians informed.

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