California lettuce linked to 2 E. coli outbreaks
Prepackaged iceberg lettuce from California has been linked to two separate outbreaks of E. coli that sickened more than 150 Taco Bell and...
Los Angeles Times
Prepackaged iceberg lettuce from California has been linked to two separate outbreaks of E. coli that sickened more than 150 Taco Bell and Taco John's customers late last year on the East Coast and in the Midwest, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said.
The news came just months after officials fingered California spinach in an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened more than 200 people and killed three.
The announcement Friday dealt another blow to California's leafy-green industry, which dominates the nation's supply. The iceberg-lettuce industry alone had about $750 million in annual sales in 2005, nearly 75 percent of the nation's crop. Most of it was grown in the Greater Salinas and Central valleys.
"It just adds more fuel to the fire of the need to address this," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's food-safety center.
The recent outbreaks apparently have vindicated concerns he voiced in September, when he unenthusiastically announced his agency's decision to lift a warning against eating fresh bagged spinach from California's Central Coast. He noted at the time that of the 20 E. coli outbreaks from lettuce and spinach since 1995, nine were linked to the Greater Salinas Valley.
"Until some fundamental fixes are put in place in the areas where this contamination is happening, there is obviously a concern that two months from now we'll be having the same conversation, talking about outbreak No. 21," Acheson said during a conference call with reporters.
Indeed, outbreak Nos. 21 and 22 occurred about two months later. People began falling sick after eating at the fast-food chains Taco Bell and Taco John's in November. In the Taco Bell outbreak, which involved restaurants in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, 71 fell ill and 53 were hospitalized.
The E. coli strain involved in the outbreaks, O157:H7, is particularly dangerous because it adheres to the intestinal wall and emits a toxic material that can dissolve it, causing bloody diarrhea, extreme cramping and, in severe cases, kidney failure and death.
The best way to kill E. coli on fresh greens is to thoroughly cook them. Washing alone may not remove the bacteria.
Los Angeles Times
The Taco John's outbreak involved three eateries in Minnesota and Iowa. Eighty-one were sickened, including 26 who were hospitalized.
Outbreaks 21 and 22 also showed that the leafy-green industry's problems in California extend beyond the Greater Salinas Valley, where the tainted spinach was grown.
Taco Bell's tainted lettuce was traced, via packaging, to farms in the Central Valley, although no specific sources were named. The Taco John's produce was traced to the Central Valley and to the coast south of Salinas.
As with the spinach outbreak, investigators suspect the initial point of lettuce contamination occurred at the farms, not in processing or distribution, said Jack Guzewich, director of emergency coordination and response for the FDA's food-safety center.
One likely problem is the proximity of ranching and farming operations in parts of California. Cattle and other animals harbor the bacteria, which is shed in their feces.
Supporting that theory, Acheson said officials found the same substrain of E. coli involved in the Taco John's outbreak in two unidentified "environmental samples" from a dairy adjacent to one of the chain's lettuce growers.
The implicated spinach ultimately was traced to four farms in Monterey and San Benito counties. Near one of the farms, which was next to a cattle ranch, officials found the substrain that caused illnesses in cow manure, a wild pig's intestines and creek water.
The three successive outbreaks also raise questions about what is causing them to occur with such frequency, said Trevor Suslow, a University of California, Davis, food pathologist.
"The fact that it seems to be happening even more frequently, in a more compressed time frame, one would have to speculate something is either being missed or something has changed to elevate the level of risk or potential of contamination," Suslow said.
Tim Chelling, spokesman for the Western Growers Association, said one possibility is increased vigilance by public-health authorities, enabling outbreaks to be detected faster and with more precision.
"I think it's an indication of the heightened sensitivity of the food-safety network," Chelling said.
Taco Bell and Taco John's switched produce suppliers after their respective outbreaks. They did not share the same suppliers, said Brian Dixon, spokesman for Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Taco John's International.
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