A recent outbreak of E. coli in the United States and Canada has left investigators baffled as to the origin, but enough evidence points to a possible culprit.
That has led advocacy group Consumer Reports to issue a warning to consumers to avoid a certain type of lettuce.
According to NBC News, Consumer Reports is warning consumers to avoid romaine lettuce, and is asking the government to warn consumers as well.
“Even though we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that romaine lettuce is the cause of the E. coli outbreak in the U.S., a greater degree of caution is appropriate given that romaine lettuce is almost always consumed raw,” said James Roger, food safety director at Consumer Reports.
Consumers Union’s Jean Halloran said people should get stronger warnings.
“The FDA should follow the lead of the Canadian government and immediately warn the public about this risk,” she said.
An outbreak of E. coli made 17 people ill and killed one person across the United States between November 15 and December 8, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though the source of infection is still unknown, the CDC is investigating leafy greens and romaine lettuce.
Five people have been hospitalized, according to Ian Williams, chief of the CDC’s Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch. Two of the hospitalized patients developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure.
The 17 cases reported to the CDC occurred in California (3), Connecticut (2), Illinois (1), Indiana (1), Michigan (1), Nebraska (1), New Hampshire (2), New York (1), Ohio (1), Pennsylvania (1), Virginia (1), Vermont (1) and Washington (1).
The strain of bacteria has been identified as shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7, which can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Infections with E. coli O157 can be life-threatening, especially for the elderly, the very young and immune-compromised people, such as cancer patients, Williams said.
Canada has been struck with an outbreak caused by the same strain of E. coli; people there became sick in early November through early December.
The CDC investigation is ongoing, and not all the tests have been completed, Williams said. However, several of the US cases have been caused by a bacterium with the same genetic “fingerprint” as the one in Canada.
“Based on the Canada investigation, romaine lettuce seems like the most likely source there,” Williams said.
“We’re very hopeful that things are wrapping up, but we don’t have enough data to say that.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is working to find the exact source of romaine lettuce, but it has come up empty-handed.
Williams explained that with cases “spread out all over the place” and people having to report what they ate, in many cases over a month ago, it’s been difficult to identify the source in Canada and the US.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to find common lettuce brands or common stores,” Williams said. “The trace-back information is always challenging too, because contamination can happen any place from the farm to the processing facility to the store.
“Canada has not been able to get upstream, either. They can say it’s romaine lettuce, but they cannot say what lettuce and from where,” he said.
Anyone concerned that they might have an E. coli infection should talk to their health care provider, he said. A medical professional can diagnose you as well as offer advice, including washing your hands, to avoid spreading it to other people.
E. coli are a diverse family of bacteria that can be found in the environment, in foods and in the intestines of people and animals. Most strains are harmless. To avoid becoming infected with a harmful strain, the CDC recommends using proper hygiene; cooking meat at proper temperatures; avoiding raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products and juices; and not swallowing water when swimming.
Since lettuce is suspected to be the cause of the current outbreak, would it help to wash your greens before eating? No, Williams said.
“This bacteria can actually get inside the lettuce leaf,” he said. “Washing it doesn’t make it safe.”