Tainted Lettuce Linked to Illness in Three States
A rare strain of E. coli never before associated with foodborne illness in the United States has sickened 29 people in three states, public health officials said Friday. The outbreak has been tied to romaine lettuce served in restaurants, school cafeterias and deli and supermarket salad bars.
Freshway Foods, an Ohio company, recalled the lettuce on Thursday. It said the lettuce had been sold primarily to food service and wholesale customers. The recall did not involve any bagged or mixed lettuce sold in supermarket produce sections, the company said, although some supermarkets appeared to have used the romaine in salad bars.
Officials traced the illness to a bacterial strain known as E. coli O145, which is different from the more widely known E. coli O157:H7, which has been associated with outbreaks linked to ground beef, leafy greens and other foods.
“This is the first time this particular type of E. coli has been associated with a foodborne outbreak,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, a deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Tauxe said the O145 outbreak “cements it in place as a cause of foodborne disease we need to be worried about.” He added, “Very little is known about it.”
Dr. Tauxe said the bacterium appeared to be a particularly virulent strain capable of causing severe illness.
The C.D.C. said there were 19 confirmed cases and 10 probable cases of people who were sickened, all in Ohio, Michigan and New York. Twelve people have been hospitalized, and of those, three have developed a type of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be fatal. Those who become ill from the E. coli strain can also get mild to severe diarrhea.
Many of those who were sickened are students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Ohio State University in Columbus and Daemon College in Amherst, N.Y., The Associated Press said. Some high school students in Dutchess County, N.Y., also fell ill, officials said.
The rare strain of E. coli was identified by a New York State Health Department laboratory when it tested a previously unopened bag of Freshway Foods romaine lettuce that came from a school cafeteria in Dutchess County.
While illnesses have been identified in only three states, Freshway said that the lettuce had been sent to customers in 23 states and the District of Columbia. The company said the lettuce was sold for use in salad bars at Kroger, Giant Eagle, Ingles and Marsh supermarkets.
The recall applied to bags of romaine from Freshway with “use by” dates of May 12 or earlier.
Officials said the wave of illnesses may have played itself out, since the last known case involved a person who fell ill in late April.
Dr. Tauxe said, however, said that it was likely that many more people than the 29 identified so far had been sickened, since few hospitals or health departments test for E. coli O145.
He said it was also possible that there had been previous cases of foodborne illness involving the bacterial strain, but that those, too, had gone undetected because of a lack of proper testing. Dr. Tauxe said two small previous outbreaks caused by the O145 strain were known in this country, but neither was linked to food.
Devon Beer, a vice president of Freshway Foods, said the company had traced the tainted lettuce to a grower in Yuma, Ariz.
The outbreak underscored growing concerns over food safety, in particular illnesses related to E. coli bacteria.
Food safety experts have been pressing for federal officials to pay more attention to a wider range of E. coli bacteria, and the new outbreak is likely to bolster that effort. “What it says is, This is getting really complicated, folks,” said Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr., the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute of the University of Florida.
William Marler, a lawyer specializing in such cases, said that while there were no previous foodborne outbreaks associated with the O145 strain in this country, one was reported in Belgium in 2007 in which 12 people fell ill.