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.
The dangerous form of the bacteria linked to the spinach recall can be found in animal and human feces. It can be transmitted to produce through contaminated water, inadequate hygiene on the farm or processing plant, and wild or domesticated animals wandering into fields. It can proliferate on raw produce, unpasteurized milk or juice, or raw meat.
Healthy adults generally recover from contamination within days with few consequences, but some may develop long-term kidney problems. Children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk for serious health problems or death.
An elderly woman in Nebraska, a 2-year-old boy in Idaho and an elderly Wisconsin woman have died from E. coli infections after eating tainted spinach.
The lettuce recall comes in the wake of several recent recalls of certain brands of packaged spinach, carrot juice, beef and unpasteurized milk found to be tainted with bacteria that can cause anything from a mild indisposition to serious illnesses and death.
The industry is working on a safety plan they expect to present shortly to the FDA, and which they believe will make such outbreaks less likely, farm representatives said.
In the meantime, they said Nunes did the right thing by pulling their products off the shelf.
"We recognize that this precautionary recall may raise concerns, but this is precisely the type of action required by the industry when a grower, packer or processor suspects something may have occurred not in keeping with good agricultural practices," said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, in a statement Monday.
Although food-borne illnesses have been making headlines recently, experts say it is important to remember that thousands of pounds of fresh greens are produced and consumed safely in the country. Increased scrutiny stemming from these outbreaks will only increase the precautions taken by the industry, they said.
"This is all an education for us," Nunes said. "We're going to get better and better at it."