Romaine lettuce is suspected as the culprit in a multi-state outbreak of E. coli food poisoning, which has sickened nearly 60 people in the U.S. and Canada.
Health Canada issued a public health notice late last month, identifying 41 cases of E. coli O157 that is believed to be linked to the consumption of romaine lettuce.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a statement warning that there are 17 similar cases here, which appear to be genetically linked to the Canadian cases. However, the CDC has not yet finished its investigation and has not determined the lettuce to be the source.
“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’s statement indicates. “The Public Health Agency of Canada has identified romaine lettuce as the source of the outbreak in Canada. 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.”
The illnesses were first noticed in November and early December. In the U.S., cases of E. coli food poisoning related to the outbreak have been reported in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington state.
E. coli is a foodborne bacterium that lives in the intestines of people and animals and can become pathogenic causing severe bowel pain and diarrhea when exposed outside of the human intestinal tract. The bacteria are commonly transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals and infected persons.
Typically, E. coli symptoms cause mild to severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps, bloody stools, and sometimes minor fevers lasting between five and 10 days. Individuals such as young children or the sick and elderly may be affected more because of a weakened immune system that if left untreated could develop into Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), which could lead to kidney failure and even death.
Most of the time, E. coli infections can be treated without the use of antibiotics by remaining hydrated and properly nourished. However, depending on the patient’s condition the use of antibiotics may be necessary to prevent further spread through the blood stream and the prevention of HUS.
Because its own investigation has not yet been completed, the CDC has not issued a warning for individuals to avoid any particular food, and no recall has been announced or company identified in connection with the outbreak. And while Canadian officials have identified romaine lettuce as the source, they have made no recall announcements nor linked the outbreak to a particular supplier or producer.