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Recall Of Contaminated Lettuce Shines Light On Produce Safety

What's lurking in the lettuce? An E. coli 0145 outbreak prompts a recall. Paul Sakum/AP hide caption

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Paul Sakum/AP

What's lurking in the lettuce? An E. coli 0145 outbreak prompts a recall.

Paul Sakum/AP

When it comes to food recalls, most people think first about problems with meat and seafood. But there's been quite a bit of trouble with produce, too.

The latest example: the Food and Drug Administration and Freshway Foods just announced a 23-state recall of bags of shredded Romaine lettuce sold to wholesalers, food service outlets, and some in-store salad bars and delis due to contamination with the nasty bacteria E. coli 0145.

According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, at least 19 people have become sick. three of them seriously. Among those infected are college students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Ohio State in Columbus and Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y. It isn't yet clear if there's a dining hall connection, state officials say.

The news comes at a time when a bill to beef up the FDA's authority over foods is languishing in the Senate — stalled by a long line of legislation Congress has declared more urgent.

Freshway Foods says the potentially contaminated lettuce is in bags marked "Use by May 12." It doesn't make bagged salads for sale at the grocery store, so don't worry about the bags there.

The affected lettuce were sold to wholesalers and food service outlets in Alabama, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, FDA says.

Symptoms of the E. coli infection range from unnoticeable to severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea, which may be bloody.

The FDA is focusing its investigation on lettuce grown Arizona, officials told the Associated Press.

The latest recall follows on the heels of highly-publicized problems in the past with spinach. And then there was the tomato investigation last summer that turned out to be a problem with peppers, contaminated with fecal matter in the field.

FDA is not sitting idly by while Congress dithers. It issued some guidelines for melons, tomatoes and leafy greens last July, but they are guidelines, and therefore, voluntary. It's also improved its food recall warning system, but it still doesn't have authority to require food recalls.

The agency may face even more challenges ahead — It needs to find a new leader for FDA's food division.

In an email note to FDA staff on Monday, Commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced with "mixed emotions" that Food Center Chief Stephen Sundlof is stepping down to take a two-year gig at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Sundloff spent 14 of his 16 years at FDA heading the veterinary medicine center.

Long-time deputy director Michael Landa will serve as acting director for now.