Consumer News

E. Coli Outbreak From Romaine Lettuce: 138 Cases Reported

A nationwide outbreak of E.coli strain O157:H7 has spread to 25 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Thursday. So far, there have been no deaths despite 72 hospitalizations, while 13 people have been diagnosed with a kidney failure termed hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). 

The number of cases found in the affected states are as follows:

  • Arizona: 3
  • California: 4
  • Colorado: 6
  • Florida: 2
  • Idaho: 3
  • Illinois: 10
  • Iowa: 1
  • Maryland: 5
  • Michigan: 1
  • Minnesota: 5
  • Montana: 1
  • Nebraska: 2
  • New Jersey: 9
  • New Mexico: 2
  • North Carolina: 2
  • Ohio: 12
  • Oregon: 1
  • Pennsylvania: 17
  • South Carolina: 1
  • South Dakota: 1
  • Tennessee: 1
  • Texas: 6
  • Virginia: 6
  • Washington: 4
  • Wisconsin: 33

Currently, the U.S. law does mandate food manufacturers to disclose the region where the lettuce was harvested, except if they choose to take the responsibility on their own and reveal the location. In this case, officials tracked the evidence through epidemiological and  laboratory means and found that the romaine lettuce grown specifically in Salinas, California, had led to the outbreak. 

The CDC has requested consumers to avoid all the different kinds of romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, California, including whole heads of romaine, organic romaine and hearts of romaine. Also, romaine lettuce identified in salads and wraps should be avoided. All brands selling lettuce grown from the region are not safe to eat, the agency said. 

Romaine lettuce grown indoors is, however, safe to eat and does not appear to be contaminated in any way. People do not need to avoid lettuce altogether if they can know where it was grown. But if they cannot ascertain that it was not grown in Salinas, then it is best to give up lettuce till the outbreak dies down, as per the agency. 

The agency has adopted new technology this time to make the process of tracing the source of infection easier. Whole Genome Sequencing is capable of identifying foodborne illnesses through DNA and fingerprinting mechanisms. 

Despite the progress made so far, the agency is grappling with certain limitations. Before the illness is reported, investigating the source takes a long time since it involves a detailed study of everything the person consumed prior to the illness. 

“Once the initial evidence is laid out, a traceback investigation includes investigating retail establishments, suppliers and distributors working our way back to the farm or farms that may have grown the lettuce that ended up in consumers’ meals and homes,” the FDA's news release reads. 

Concurrently, the FDA is coordinating with other national and international agencies to possibly investigate three different strains of the E.coli infections in Washington, Canada and California, respectively. In Washington, nearly 13 cases of another E. coli O157:H7 strain have been reported, whereas 24 cases have been reported in Canada. 

Romaine lettuce Romaine lettuce is seen in a file photo. Muffet/Liz West/Flickr