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The E. coli Woes: Yet Another Bout with Romaine Lettuce

Posted in E. coli,Outbreaks & Recalls on April 19, 2018

The bacterium E. coli has surely been making its rounds in some of our favorite restaurants: Chiptole, McDonalds, KFC, Wendy’s, Sizzler Restaurants, as well as others. This recent outbreak has involved Panera, where many of us purchase sandwiches and salads.

The knee-jerk reaction seems to encompass two distinct types: that of anger, and that of frustration. As parents, we try to seek restaurants that we perceive to be healthy and that use the freshest, organic ingredients. When those restaurants turn up on recall or outbreak lists, we are thoroughly discouraged. That kind of reaction is completely understandable, but please remember that the United States has some of the most stringent food safety protocols of most nations. Add to that fact that recall announcements are expedient and timely.

The restaurants that we patronize, naturally, do not want any associations with potential foodborne pathogens. Most restaurants have their customer’s best interests in mind, not to mention that any recall or outbreak would be terrible for business.

Panera Bread Restaurants Implicated In Latest Outbreak

New Jersey is one of the hardest hit states of the latest outbreak that has spread to 16 states and has infected 53 individuals and has prompted an investigation by state and federal health officials.

Health officials in New Jersey report that they are investigating several Panera Bread restaurants in Phillipsburg, NJ in relation to exposure to E. coli. According to Donna Leusner, a New Jersey Health department spokesperson, “It is very early in the investigation. [This] is a preliminary investigation of a half dozen cases in four counties Two of the six were from Somerset county with the other four form other Central Jersey counties.” The state health department was in the process of gathering the food history of those sickened and the department will give its findings to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). As part of the state’s investigation, the department traces the food product back to a possible source and conducts lab testing as well as interviewing those who were sickened.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that chopped romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona region could be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 with the potential of sickening people. Currently, no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand has been identified. As a precaution, consumers all over the United States who possess store bought chopped romaine lettuce should not eat the product and should discard it, even though no one has fallen ill. Consumers should confirm with the grocery store that the product is not chopped lettuce from Yuma, Arizona. Fifty-three individuals have been infected with this strain of E. coli. Thirty-one people have been hospitalized, and three have developed a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Fortunately, no deaths have occurred.

As the CDC and FDA complete traceback investigations to find the names of the growers, we will await the news of what brands may be involved. This process can take some time, which is why the FDA recommends the avoidance of romaine in the interim. According to the FDA:

“In a typical traceback effort, CDC and the FDA identifies clusters of people who became ill, especially in different geographical regions and works to trace the food eaten by those made ill to a common source. In situations where there is no packaging available for the reported or suspect product that may help conduct a traceback, FDA scientists and investigators work with federal and state partners and companies to collect, review and analyze hundreds–sometimes thousands–of invoices and shipping documents. This process is labor-intensive, but also dependent on the availability and quality of records.”

(Not so Secret) Secrets About E. Coli and Produce

Shiga toxin Escherichia coli (STEC) O157, commonly known as E. coli, has been making its nasty rounds for quite some time: actually since 1885. E. coli causes 100,000 reported cases of illness, 3,000 hospitalizations, and 90 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s not all well and good. But in actuality, your greatest concern is for yourself and/or your loved ones and how to treat the illness and most importantly, how to stop it from ever happening again.

Produce Contamination From Farm to Table

Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses associated with fruits and vegetables have recently become more common, even uncomfortably so. Produce grown in both the United States and other countries have been linked to E. coli O157:H7. Contamination can occur at any step in the farm to table process.

According to Robert Mandrell, an investigator with the study and research division of the USDA Center for Produce Safety and Microbiology Research, “We are looking at the ranches and watersheds and wildlife around these (Northern California) regions and getting an idea about how things are moving through this environment. We are analyzing E. coli in water, wildlife, and livestock and using microbial source tracking to connect the strains.” The belief is that wind, rainfall, and distance from watersheds to crops all play into the movement of this dangerous strain of E. coli.

Symptoms of E. coliInfection

  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea: can possibly be bloody
  • Fever of approximately 100 to 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mild dehydration

Most symptoms of E. coli infection resolve by themselves in a few days; however, if severe dehydration and/or anemia are present, hospitalization is required. Those with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk for severe symptoms.

Treatment for this illness involves drinking plenty of liquids to stave off dehydration. Antibiotics are usually not prescribed due to an increased risk of developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a disease in which the associated Shigatoxin present in the bacterium destroys red blood cells and platelets.

A Warning From the FDA

The FDA has launched its own webpage concerning this outbreak. The FDA recommends the avoidance of romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona. In their statements, they recommend:

“The FDA recommends that consumers ask restaurants and other food service establishments where their romaine lettuce originated, and avoid chopped romaine lettuce that originated from Yuma, Arizona. If you cannot confirm the source of the romaine lettuce, do not buy it or eat it. If you have already purchased products containing chopped romaine lettuce, including bagged salads, salad mixes, or prepared salads, throw them away.”

By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)