Nunes Co. Inc. issued the voluntary recall Sunday of more than 8,500 cartons of green leaf lettuce grown on one farm in the Salinas Valley, the lush growing region at the center of a nationwide outbreak of spinach-borne E. coli that killed three people and made 199 others sick.
By Monday morning, all but 250 cartons of the lettuce distributed under the Foxy brand between Oct. 3 and Oct. 6 had been located and were being destroyed, company President Tom Nunes said. The search continued for the remaining cartons, which Nunes said were believed to be in supermarkets or restaurants in Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
"If we can get it all back, I'll be a happy camper," Nunes said, emphasizing that the recall was a precaution taken once the company realized there was bacteria in the irrigation water used on the farm.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed there had been no evidence of E. coli on the lettuce, or any reports of illnesses, and commended the company for being proactive.
"Clearly, the company did the right thing in terms of taking the proper approach in not putting the public at risk and initiating a voluntary recall," Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told reporters Monday.
Simply finding E. coli - a bacteria that exists in hundreds of strains, many of them harmless - is not unusual, Acheson said.
Tests could reveal in 24 to 48 hours whether the E. coli detected in the irrigation water was of the particular strain that can sicken humans, Acheson said.
"As far as we aware there is nothing whatsoever to connect the current recall with the previous spinach outbreak," Acheson said.
The recall was issued for lettuce sold as "Green Leaf 24 Count, waxed carton," and "Green Leaf 18 Count, cellophane sleeve, returnable carton," and stamped with lot code 6SL0024.
The grower had relied on a backup reservoir to supplement irrigation water drawn from a regularly tested well. Once the reservoir water was tested and bacteria was found, Nunes decided not to wait for test results to find out if the lettuce itself was contaminated, or if the E. coli - a commonly found bacteria - was of a dangerous variety.
The tests can take days, and in that time, the produce could be consumed by unwary customers, he said.
"We knew the bad stuff could be in there," Nunes said. "We had a very good chance of stopping it before it hit the shelves."
The family-owned company grows more than 20,000 acres of vegetables in Arizona and California, and has never had problems of this sort, Nunes said.