Consumer Reports Claims Romaine Lettuce Linked to Lethal US, Canada E. Coli Illnesses

January 4, 2018 Updated: January 4, 2018

Outbreaks of illness caused by the E. coli bacteria have health officials in the U.S. scrambling to find a source, while Canadian health officials have pinpointed romaine lettuce as the likely culprit, The Toronto Star reported.

Consumer Reports, a consumer advocacy group, says the U.S. government should issue stronger warnings while it investigates, NBCNews reported.

So far 58 people have fallen ill and two have died in an E. coli outbreak in the U.S. and Canada which the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says started in November.

On Dec. 28, the CDC reported 17 cases of E. coli infection in 13 states. Canada’s Public Health Agency reported 41 cases. One of the ill Canadians died.

On Jan. 3, an American died from E. coli. Five people have been hospitalized and two have suffered kidney failure because of an E. coli outbreak which crossed the U.S. border with Canada, Food Safety News reported.

The difference between the way the two nations are handling the outbreak is that Canada decided almost three weeks ago to warn people not to eat romaine lettuce, which it has identified as the likely vector.

Farmer Tobias Haack drives a tractor over 100,00 heads of romaine, iceberg and ten other types of lettuce to mulch them back into the ground at one of his fields on June 4, 2011 near Hamburg, Germany. German vegetable farmers faced a crisis as public reaction to an enterohemorrhagic E. coli, also known as the EHEC bacteria, outbreak has brought vegetable sales to a near halt. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Farmer Tobias Haack drives a tractor over 100,00 heads of romaine, iceberg and ten other types of lettuce to mulch them back into the ground at one of his fields near Hamburg, Germany on June 4, 2011. German vegetable farmers faced a crisis as public reaction to an enterohemorrhagic E. coli, also known as the EHEC bacteria, the outbreak brought vegetable sales to a near halt. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The U.S. agencies in charge of public health and food safety, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC, are so far unwilling to spread a warning.

“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 CDC said in its statement.

“Because we have not identified a source of the infections, CDC is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food.”

Canada saw its first case on Dec. 11. At that point, the Canadian government said romaine lettuce was the likely source of the infection.

Three days later one of the infected people died. The Canadian government then warned people in the Eastern provinces, saying people there should “consider consuming other types of lettuce, instead of romaine lettuce.”

On Dec. 28, the Canadian government reported that some of the infected romaine might still be in stores or in restaurant refrigerators and that the risk of infection persisted.

The CDC did not release any public report until Dec. 28, despite having been tracking the outbreak since November 15, K5 News reported.

While Canada has been warning its citizens, the CDC has been doing DNA testing to see if the romaine lettuce infecting people in Canada carries the same strain of E. coli that has sickened and killed people in America.

It does.

Genome sequencing shows that the same strain of E. coli “O157:H7” has afflicted people in both countries, the CDC reports, adding that this makes it likely that there is a single source for the outbreak.

Heads of romaine lettuce fill a produce case at the Fruit Barn produce store in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Heads of romaine lettuce fill a produce case at the Fruit Barn produce store in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

So—why not warn Americans about romaine lettuce?

American consumers are asking the same question.

Mary Cates Ballard posted on the Consumer Reports Facebook page, after reading about the infected romaine:

“Just went out to eat and had a salad that had romaine in it. Later that evening I had excruciating stomach pains. I threw up and felt somewhat better. But the soreness in my stomach is still with me 4 days later. For the first 2 days it hurt to the touch.

“Where is the food police!? Why aren’t they protecting us from contaminated foods. Especially any that is imported.”

Linda Pulice commented, “Well fantastic, been eating it all week….why isn’t this on the news?? No restaurants are following the CDC?”

Maryann Russell responded: “Worrisome. How come I haven’t seen this on the news?”

This not the first time E. coli has been spread by romaine lettuce. A 10-state outbreak in 2011 sickened at least 30 people. in 2011, the CDC reported.

Consumer Reports’ Food Safety Director, James Roger, notes that “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.”

Consumers Union, the policy wing of Consumer Reports, has also called for stronger warnings in the U.S.

Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union (consumersunion.org)
Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union (consumersunion.org)

“The FDA should follow the lead of the Canadian government and immediately warn the public about this risk,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union.

“The available data strongly suggest that romaine lettuce is the source of the U.S. outbreak. If so, and people aren’t warned, more may get sick.”

Most people can survive an E. coli infection with nothing more than a few days’ discomfort. Symptoms can include, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, and stomach cramps.

Severe cases can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure.

Young children, the elderly, and anyone who has a condition that weakens the immune system, such as cancer or diabetes, are at a greater risk.

Consumers Union recommends throwing away any romaine people might have in their refrigerators, and holding off on buying any more until the infected crops are identified and eliminated.

No one, neither consumer groups or either involved government, is calling for widespread recalls at this time.

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