Health authorities in the U.S. and Canada are working to identify the source of an E. coli outbreak that has sickened people in 13 states and several Canadian provinces. So far, romaine lettuce appears to be a possible culprit.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Public Health Agency of Canada has identified romaine lettuce as the source of the outbreak of the E. coli 0157:H7 strain there. In the U.S., state and local public health officials are interviewing people sickened on this side of the border to determine whether there is a correlation to Canada’s findings or whether there is another food item in common among the sick people, including romaine lettuce and other leafy greens.
At this stage in its investigation, however, the CDC says it is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food.
The E. coli outbreak has sickened 58 people in both countries over the past seven weeks. At this stage, the outbreak has affected people in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington state.
Five of those sickened in the U.S. have been hospitalized and one has died. There has also been one death in Canada. The Shiga toxin-producing strain of E. coli associated with this outbreak is the dangerous strain. Exposure to it causes severe, bloody diarrhea and can sometimes lead to kidney failure and even death.
Although the CDC says it can’t recommend a particular food to avoid at this time, Consumer Reports advises U.S. consumers to avoid eating romaine lettuce for now.
“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 lettuce is almost always consumed raw,” says James Rogers, Ph.D., Director of Food Safety and Research at Consumer Reports.
E. coli 0157:H7 can sicken anyone exposed to the bacteria, but children, the elderly, and anyone who has a condition such as cancer or diabetes that weakens the immune system are at greater risk of serious complications.
“People in these groups should be particularly vigilant about avoiding romaine lettuce,” Dr. Rogers said, according to Consumer Reports.