Harvard University Dining Services pulled romaine lettuce from all dining locations as a result of an ongoing E. coli outbreak that has reached twelve U.S. states and some areas in Canada.
The exact cause of the outbreak is still unknown, according to Harvard Environmental Health & Safety Associate Director Valerie J. Nelson. Until the recall is resolved, salad bars across campus will absent of the leafy vegetable.
“This is a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, which is often found in the digestive system of cattle,” Nelson said. “Because people can get a serious illness with an infection with this type of E. coli, we don’t want to take any risks. This investigation is still ongoing.”
Forty-three cases of infection caused by E. coli have been reported in this nationwide outbreak, according to a food safety alert posted by the CDC on Nov. 26.
EHS maintains a food recall notification system that regularly sends out updates via an University email listserv. About half an hour after the CDC’s initial recall notification for romaine lettuce on Nov. 20, EHS called Martin T. Breslin, the HUDS director for culinary operations, who promptly removed the vegetable from all Harvard kitchens.
“I immediately contacted our chefs and managers to discard all romaine lettuce, remove it from our locations and sanitize accordingly,” Breslin said. “I then contacted our produce vendors and canceled any deliveries of romaine lettuce.”
Breslin said he is not concerned about the lack of romaine lettuce in Harvard dining halls, citing various viable alternatives. He added he has dealt with similar food recalls for romaine lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes in the past.
“We’re replacing it with baby spinach and arugula, things that are not implicated in the recall,” Breslin said. “There’s plenty of other lettuce to choose from that we can provide full salad bars and so on.”
The contaminated romaine lettuce comes from farms in northern and central California; however, the source of the outbreak is still unclear.
“This could be something on the farm, in the way the lettuce is washed, it could be anything that happens before it’s distributed out to the various purchasers,” Nelson said. “We look at the product and where it’s grown and where it’s processed as possible places where the outbreak or cross-contamination occurred.”
As to when students and faculty can begin expecting to see romaine lettuce on their plates again, Breslin said that he cannot safely estimate a date, adding that recalls “can go on for weeks.”
“It depends,” Breslin said. “We just play it day by day until we get notification that it’s being resolved or not or narrowed down.”
Crista Martin, HUDS director for strategic initiatives and communications, said their approach to dealing with outbreaks involves both caution and patience.
“In short, we just take it off the menu until we have 100 percent confidence that it’s okay to put it back on the menu, and only that,” Martin said, “It’s up to the CDC really to provide greater information, so we’ll just keep an eye on that.”
All Harvard kitchens and facilities are inspected independently by EHS as well as by city agencies, according to Breslin.
“We hold ourselves to a very high standard as it pertains to sanitation and food safety,” Breslin said. “We won’t take any risks or chances. We never do.”