Five people have now died in a major E. coli outbreak in the US involving romaine lettuce, with 197 cases reported across 35 states. BBC News quotes the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as saying that 25 more people had been affected since its last report on 16 May. Two of the victims were from Minnesota, with the other three from Arkansas, California and New York.
It is the largest US outbreak of E. coli since 200 people fell ill in 200 and the report says according to the latest statement from the CDC, many of the people affected fell ill two to three weeks ago, when the contaminated lettuce was still on shop shelves.
Romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region in Arizona is thought to be the source of the latest outbreak, although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says no single grower, distributor or region can account for the spread.
The CDC said that some of the affected people had not eaten lettuce but had contact with others who had fallen ill.
When eaten, it can cause diarrhoea, vomiting and even kidney failure in severe cases. The report says of the infected people, 89 have been hospitalised, and 26 have developed a kidney failure type known as haemolytic uremic syndrome.
Canada’s Public Health Agency has also recorded six cases of E. coli “with a similar genetic fingerprint” to the US infections. The E. coli outbreak began in April and has spread across the US. California and Pennsylvania are recording the most cases.
The CDC announced the tally more than two months after the first illnesses occurred in mid-March. The Washington Post reports, however, that with the vegetables now off the shelves and the growing season over, the FDA may never crack the case, frustrating consumer advocates who have called on the agency to issue rules that would speed up future investigations of food-borne illnesses.
The FDA initially said that only bagged and pre-chopped romaine lettuce that had been distributed to retailers across the country was contaminated with E. coli, but a number of inmates at a prison in Alaska also became ill after eating whole-head lettuce.
Because a majority of the illnesses were linked to packaged vegetables that had been passed from suppliers to distributors to processing facilities where they were chopped and bagged, finding out where they were grown is far more cumbersome.
“It’s a labour-intensive task. It requires collecting and evaluating thousands of records; and trying to accurately reproduce how the contaminated lettuce moved through the food supply chain to grocery stores, restaurants and other locations where it was sold or served to the consumers who became ill,” Scott Gottlieb, the CDC’s commissioner, and Stephen Ostroff, the deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in an update.
The report says this is the worst outbreak since 2006, when 205 people became ill and five died after contracting E. coli from baby spinach.
Health officials said children under the age of 5, seniors older than 65 and those with weak immune systems are most vulnerable. So far, the outbreak has sickened people ages 12 to 84.