Michigan E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak Linked to Bagged Lettuce Again


Food Safety Attorney, William Marler, Gives History Lesson.

“E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks associated with lettuce or spinach, specifically the "pre-washed" and "ready-to-eat" varieties sold under various brand and trade names, are by no means a new phenomenon,” according to food-safety attorney, William D. Marler, of Marler Clark. By way of illustration:

October 2003, thirteen residents of a California retirement home were sickened, and two people died, after eating E. coli-contaminated, pre-washed spinach; September 2003, nearly forty patrons of a California restaurant chain fell ill after eating salads prepared with bagged, pre-washed lettuce; and July 2002, over fifty young women fell ill with E. coli O157:H7 at a dance camp after eating “pre-washed” lettuce, leaving several hospitalized and one with life-long kidney damage.

And this is just a small sampling of the twenty or more E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks since 1995 in which spinach or lettuce was the source.

Several more outbreaks linked to contaminated leafy-produce, including most recently the September 2005 Dole packaged lettuce outbreak, are identified in the chart below, which is based on information gathered by the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

Date Vehicle Etiology Reported Cases States/Provinces Aug. 1993 Salad Bar E. coli O157:H7 53 1:WA July 1995 Lettuce (leafy green; red; romaine) E. coli O157:H7 70 1:MT Sept. 1995 Lettuce (romaine) E. coli O157:H7 20 1:ID Sept. 1995 Lettuce (iceberg) E. coli O157:H7 30 1:ME Oct. 1995 Lettuce (iceberg; unconfirmed) E. coli O157:H7 11 1:OH May-June 1996 Lettuce (mesclun; red leaf) E. coli O157:H7 61 3:CT, IL, NY May 1998 Salad E. coli O157:H7 2 1:CA Feb.-Mar. 1999 Lettuce (iceberg) E. coli O157:H7 72 1:NE July-Aug. 2002 Lettuce (romaine) E. coli O157:H7 29 2:WA, ID Oct. 2003-May 2004 Lettuce (mixed salad) E. coli O157:H7 57 1:CA Apr. 2004 Spinach E. coli O157:H7 16 1:CA Sep. 2005 Lettuce (romaine) E. coli O157:H7 32 3:MN, WI, OR

The most recent major E. coli outbreak ties to leafy greens was the Dole Spinach outbreak of 2006. This included 205 illnesses due to E. coli O157:H7 reported the CDC. This number included 31 cases of HUS, 102 hospitalizations, and 3 deaths. The FDA maintained its conclusion that all the implicated spinach was traced back to Salinas Valley in California.

“We never seem to learn,” said Mr. Marler. In November 2005, the FDA elucidated its past efforts and present concerns in its "Letter to California Firms that Grow, Pack, Process, or Ship Fresh and Fresh-Cut Lettuce." The letter begins:

“This letter is intended to make you aware of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) serious concern with the continuing outbreaks of food borne illness associated with the consumption of fresh and fresh-cut lettuce and other leafy greens.”

The FDA efforts to lead the lettuce industry to safer practices were nothing new. In 1998, the FDA issued guidance to the industry entitled "Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fruits and Vegetables." The guide is specifically designed to assist growers and packers in the implementation of safer manufacturing practices. On February 5, 2004, the FDA issued a letter to the lettuce and tomato industries to "make them aware of [FDA's] concerns regarding continuing outbreaks associated with these two commodities and to encourage the industries to review their practices."