By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Just this week, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention informed the public of their involvement in an investigation of an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. The source has not yet been determined. Our friends up North are battling a similar outbreak also linked to E. coli O157:H7. Their culprit – romaine lettuce. It is still pending if the two outbreaks are really one. But we do know that we in the United States are experiencing the same concerns as Canada – our case counts are likely to rise and our outbreak has taken a fatal turn. Two people have died as a result of the current E. coli outbreaks.

The Link is Likely

Canada’s publication, The Toronto Star, recently reported about the pendency of the link between the two outbreaks. The CDC’s website on the outbreak investigation confirms the likelihood of the link as well:

“Whole genome sequencing is being performed on samples of bacteria making people sick in the United States to give us information about whether these illnesses are related to the illnesses in Canada. Preliminary results show that the type of E. coli making people sick in both countries is closely related genetically, meaning the ill people are more likely to share a common source of infection.”

The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration have not expressed that romaine is the source in the United States’ outbreak, but the implications are strong. The CDC’s website also comments that romaine was determined as the Canadian source of its outbreak. The site states:

“In the United States, state and local public health officials are interviewing sick people to determine what they ate in the week before their illness started. CDC is still collecting information to determine whether there is a food item in common among sick people, including leafy greens and romaine.”

Case Counts Are Rising

As the case count rises in Canada, which is now up to 41 confirmed illnesses, Canada’s health agencies have commented that, due to the shelf life of the product and the timing needed to link the illnesses, there are likely more cases. The US outbreak numbers have reached 17. Five of these have been hospitalized, two have developed potentially deadly hemolytic uremic syndrome, and one has died. Seventeen people have been hospitalized in the Canadian outbreak, and one has died.

The United States is likely to see a rise in illnesses as well. It typically takes up to three weeks for an illness to be confirmed as a link to an outbreak. It is likely that in the New Year new cases will be announced.

Still No Recall

Despite the likelihood of the link, the FDA has not yet issued a recall and no US agency has issued a warning about romaine lettuce.  About two weeks ago, the Public Health Agency of Canada issued its warnings to its citizens in eastern Canada to avoid romaine lettuce. Despite the warnings, Canada also has yet to issue a recall. According to the Toronto Star:

“No recall has been issued in Canada or the U.S. The grocery chain Sobeys voluntarily pulled romaine lettuce off its shelves last week while the public health investigation continues.”

Canada’s health agencies warn that the contaminated product is likely still on the shelves – whether in someone’s refrigerator, at a restaurant, or in a retail store. The agency urges its citizens to opt for other lettuce species in light of the outbreak. Raw bulk romaine lettuce as well as pre-washes, prepackaged romaine lettuce varieties are both possible vectors for the E. coli strain.

Meanwhile, Canadian and the United States’ agencies confirm their investigations are still ongoing.

Protection. Prevention.

Knowing a contaminated food item may still be in stores and even in your home is a scary thought for anyone. The good news is that you can still protect yourself (and those you care about) while the source of contamination and brand of lettuce is still a mystery.

The CDC published its report on Emerging Infectious Diseases that stated: “In the past decade, outbreaks of human illness associated with the consumption of raw vegetables and fruits (or unpasteurized products produced from them) have increased in the United States.” E. coli from romaine is not a surprise anymore for the CDC. It is highly probable, in fact.

As Americans, we are becoming more food conscious. We are trying to eat healthy, are moving toward more organic, less processed foods, and are championing for transparency from farm to fork. Many people have started trying to eat more raw foods as part of the raw food movement. Unfortunately, this well-intended health consciousness can also be dangerous if we are not careful. There is a reason why some cities have laws that restaurants cannot buy food from local farmer’s markets to serve patrons in their restaurants — these smaller establishments usually do not have as many health safety checks in place to ensure that their food will not accidentally become contaminated with foodborne illnesses like E. coli.

But we are not powerless. We have the ability to prevent illness and protect our families.

  1. The first line of prevention is to know what you are looking for in an E. coli infection. The CDC informs the public to keep a look out for:

“The symptoms of STEC infections vary for each person but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. If there is fever, it usually is not very high (less than 101˚F/less than 38.5˚C). Most people get better within 5–7 days. Some infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life-threatening.”

  1. If someone in your home is sick, immediate medical care is recommended. STEC E. coli infections can have long-term complications and may in some instances become deadly. Urgent medical case could reduce the risks of these issues.
  2. Prevent the spread of illness (and infection) in your own home. Handwashing is the best defense against the spread of illness. Twenty seconds, soap, water, and you have the best do-it-yourself vaccine.
  3. Rid your home of existing E. coli (in case it is there). This can be accomplished by washing all produce with running water, preferably also cooking produce, cooking raw meats to their optimum cooking temperatures, and disinfecting all food surface areas.

UnsafeFoods will continue to follow this outbreak and make additional reports as more information is released.

We wish all of you a healthy New Year!