Cornell Dining removed all romaine lettuce from its 27 on-campus dining facilities after an outbreak of E. coli infected over 60 people across 16 states, according to The Washington Post.
Signs were posted in dining halls and convenience stores across campus, including Bear Necessities, Amit Bhatia Libe Cafe, Okenshields and Rusty’s Cafe, proclaiming that the lettuce had been removed out of an “abundance of caution” after warnings issued nationwide.
The spreading infection prompted an official warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against buying or eating “romaine lettuce at a grocery store or restaurant unless you can confirm it is not from the Yuma, Arizona, growing region,” where the infected lettuce originates.
The University was informed of the outbreak by Maines Paper & Food Service, the primary supplier of fresh products to Cornell’s Ithaca campus, during the late evening of Friday, April 13, according to Mark Anbinder, a spokesperson for Cornell Dining.
Anbinder said that it is unlikely that there is any linkage between the infected produce grown in Yuma and the produce sold by Maines, but Cornell Dining has chosen to be “proactive.”
“We’re not aware of any illnesses in our area relating to lettuce from Arizona,” Anbinder said in a statement to The Sun. “Recalls like this happen from time to time.”
Cornell Dining’s statement, released on April 13 itself, linked a recent outbreak of E. coli to “bagged, chopped romaine lettuce.” This form of packaged romaine is the primary source of Cornell’s salads and lettuce produce, according to Prof. Randy Worobo, food science, speaking to The Sun by phone from Thailand.
“We are consumers of ease,” Worobo said, referring to Cornell’s supply practices. “We don’t buy heads of lettuce, we buy bag mix.”
After the first warning, one staff member in every dining location was put in charge of removing all chopped romaine lettuce from food production, according to Anbinder. Though the initial warning from Maines applied to only chopped romaine, it was expanded to all romaine products by Tuesday, April 17.
Cornell Dining told employees after the initial purge that the lettuce used in their dining halls was not infected as it came from a “local source,” but that they elected to cease production of any product in which lettuce was used to “make sure” there was no chance of contamination, according to Katie Crocker, a lead food service worker for Cornell Dining at Rusty’s Cafe.
“They told us to immediately pull all salads,” Crocker told The Sun. “That was on Friday night. By the time we came back on Monday, they had determined that our lettuce was actually not affected.”
Crocker said that Cornell Dining initially planned to continue selling salad products with alternative lettuce varieties. However, Anbinder told The Sun that Cornell Dining sourced romaine lettuce from different processing plants instead, bringing in produce from California and Maryland.
“We have since been able to resume supplying romaine lettuce to eateries on campus,” Anbinder said.
However, though Cornell Dining is now sourcing lettuce from alternative growth sites, a single bag of salad often contains produce from many different origins, making it difficult to trace the bacterium across national production chains, Worobo said.
The only way to track the progression of contagion is by tracking cases of symptoms, according to Worobo. For this strain of E. coli, symptoms can include bloody diarrhea, hemorrhaging and renal failure in extreme cases, he said.
Symptomatic tracking is a necessity because there is no “rapid test” to determine E. coli contamination. “By the time you get the results, the lettuce will be spoiled,” he continued.
Anbinder confirmed to The Sun that no tests or analysis was performed on the produce removed from the dining halls.
Worobo supported Cornell Dining’s decision to pull all romaine lettuce from their dining facilities.
“Rather than waiting to see if people die or go on dialysis, it’s much safer to … just discard it,” he said.