Listeria concerns prompt romaine lettuce recalls

JUNEAU, Alaska - Alaska officials say bags of chopped romaine lettuce are being recalled over concerns of potential listeria contamination. Meanwhile, a California farm said Thursday it was voluntarily recalling bags of chopped romaine lettuce because of possible contamination, though no illnesses have been reported.

The Alaska Department of Conservation has confirmed that the 2-pound bags of chopped romaine lettuce from True Leaf Farms of Salinas, Calif., which have a use-by date of Sept. 29, were distributed in Alaska by Church Brothers, LLC.

There have been no reported illnesses, but listeria can be fatal and is particularly dangerous to people with weakened immune systems, including infants, the elderly and people with HIV or those who are undergoing chemotherapy.

Listeria rarely shows up in produce, but an outbreak linked to cantaloupe from a Colorado farm has caused at least 72 illnesses, including up to 16 deaths, in 18 states.

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Officials urge those who purchased the potentially tainted product, which carries a bag and box code of B256-46438-8, to throw it out.

Previously, True Leaf Farms announced the recall of 90 cartons that were shipped to an Oregon food service distributor. From the distributor, it might have gone to at least two other states, Washington and Idaho.

The Food and Drug Administration notified the company that a sample from one bag taken as part of a random check tested positive for listeria.

Federal health officials say they've gotten better at detecting the germs that cause food poisoning, so they are seeing them in produce more often.

California health officials are looking into the contamination, said Ken August, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, but have not yet determined how the lettuce became contaminated.

"Anytime there is a contaminated food product, we are concerned and take steps so that it's removed from shelves as quickly as possible and to notify consumers," he said.

August said the state is working with the company to verify the distribution of the produce being recalled. Most of the lettuce was sold to California institutions such as restaurants and cafeterias, he said, and only a small amount went to retail in other states, August said.

The Salinas Valley is known as the "Salad Bowl of the World" for its production of lettuce and numerous other crops.

Lettuce currently picked at the farm is safe to eat, said Steve Church, CEO of Church Brothers, which sells and markets the farm's produce. The company is working with the FDA, Church said, to determine if there are any problems at the farm and is taking more time to sanitize its produce.

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