(Aug. 17) Despite the attention given to food safety and leafy greens, the latest E. coli lettuce outbreak went nearly unnoticed by the industry and unreported to the public.

Even after details of an investigation into a March outbreak on the Hawaiian Island of Kaua’i, which sickened eight people with E. coli O157, indicating both were possibly linked to cattle operations, government officials and industry representatives expressed confusion and disregard for what could have been done to restore consumer confidence if the incident had attracted national attention.

Sources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and even some in the leafy greens industry considered the incident strictly a local issue.

A spokesman for CDC said the agency would have only become involved if it had been a multi-state outbreak. And because interstate commerce was not an issue, the incident did not fall within FDA’s authority, a spokesman said.

“I don’t know what they could have done,” said David Gombas, vice president of science and technical affairs for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. “I don’t know what United Fresh could have done in a situation like that unless they were a member and wanted our help. I don’t even know which farm was involved.”

He doubted enough data had been collected to be of any value in advising another state about its own food safety practices. He said there isn’t much the industry can do at this time because it lacks information from Hawaii.

Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, said that since the organization did not exist at the time of the outbreak he wasn’t sure who Hawaiian authorities could have contacted within the industry for advice.

“They’re a tiny producer of these products, and I’m not trying to downplay it, but here at the marketing agreement we’re focused on California leafy greens, and this doesn’t factor for us right now,” he said. “It’s not a question of whether we would care or are paying attention.”

THE INVESTIGATION

After a four-month investigation completed in early August, Hawaii Department of Health officials concluded through DNA testing that the contamination came from a cattle operation and suspect it was carried by flooding to the lettuce field over a mile away.

The eight people who fell ill have fully recovered and returned home without serious effects from the pathogen, said Janice Okubo, public information officer. She said the first illness was reported April 2. She would not identify the farm or those who became ill out of privacy concerns.

Okubo said the investigation determined a single grower provided the tainted lettuce to several area restaurants.

Jeri Kahana, manager of the commodities branch with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, could not comment on specifics of the implicated farm. She said the department offers food safety audits, but the state does not have mandatory regulations for GAPs.

“We are advocating food safety on a voluntary basis, and we’re working with the University of Hawaii and the Farm Bureau to try to educate these farmers,” she said. “But it’s very slow because we have a lot of immigrant farmers, and language is a problem and their agricultural practices are an issue too.”