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Farmer worries CDC has gone too far with its lettuce warning

Romaine lettuce before it was harvested on a farm in Salinas, Calif., in October.Jim Wilson/New York Times

A local lettuce grower voiced concern Friday over the nationwide warning on romaine lettuce, claiming the ban hurts farmers like him who grow their produce indoors.

Paul Sellew, founder and chief executive of Little Leaf Farm in Devens, said he grows his lettuce hydroponically, in a “state-of-the-art controlled environment,” far from any E. coli contamination.

The Centers for Disease Control “threw the baby with the bath water out” when they advised that all romaine lettuce be discarded, Sellew said in a telephone interview.

“It would’ve been nice if they could trace what region it came from instead of doing what they did. It should have been a little more thoughtfully enacted as to not unnecessarily scare the public. But they have to protect them, so I understand why they did it,” he said.


State inspectors recently checked all of Sellew’s produce at his request, and it was given the all-clear, he said, but his produce was still taken off the shelves in grocery stores.

The CDC’s guidance remained in place Friday.

“CDC continues to investigate a multistate outbreak of E. coli . . . infections linked to romaine lettuce. We understand this outbreak is of concern to many Americans — especially with so many gathering for meals this Thanksgiving week. CDC’s disease detectives are working with federal regulatory partners to investigate and determine the source of contamination as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the CDC director, in a statement Friday.

“The good news is we were able to detect and identify the outbreak quickly through our disease surveillance system, which can prevent further illness,” he said. “However, until we know more, it’s crucial that Americans continue to follow the guidance that CDC issued. There are no exceptions — all romaine lettuce must be discarded, regardless of brand, type, or if it is in a mixture,” Redfield said.

The CDC said it was issuing its warning “because no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand of romaine lettuce has been identified” as the source of a rash of E. coli cases.

The warning about all romaine lettuce was unusually aggressive, Politico reported.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told the website, “It’s a broad warning, there’s no question about it. . . . Our first mandate is to protect public health, fully recognizing that this is going to cause extreme hardship for growers and for consumers.”


But Sellew said his methods of growing food have nothing in common with farmers on the West Coast, where there have been E. coli issues before.

He said he was frustrated that the CDC is “painting lettuce in a broad stroke.”

Martin Finucane can be reached at Katie Camero can be reached Follow her on Twitter @camerokt_.