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Michigan E. coli outbreak on [Monterey County] radar

by Dawn Withers

The Salinas Californian

Monterey County agricultural officials are paying close attention to a Michigan E. coli outbreak believed to be linked to iceberg lettuce.

The origin of the greens has not been determined, and at this point, no California grower or processor has been named in the outbreak.

"We are aware of it and keeping an eye on it," said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement.

On Friday, the Michigan Department of Community Health issued a public health alert, saying "Industrial-sized packages of iceberg lettuce" are "thought to be associated" with 26

illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7. Ten people have been hospitalized since the outbreak began Sept. 8.

Joseph Pezzini, vice president of operations for Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville, said he is keeping up with the news of the outbreak and is waiting for more definitive information on the source of the E. coli.

"It is very preliminary right now," Pezzini said.

The department said some of the illnesses involved people eating shredded or chopped iceberg lettuce that had been purchased from Aunt Mid's Produce Co. in Detroit. Product trace-back and additional test results are still in progress.

Horsfall said he hasn't received many calls from growers worried that the lettuce might ultimately be traced to California. Moreover, he said he's waiting to see what Michigan health officials and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uncover.

"There seems to be more questions than answers," Horsfall said.

Besides the Salinas Valley, lettuce production is under way in areas including some Midwestern states, such as Michigan.

Seven of the E. coli illness reports were at Michigan State University, five among inmates at the Lenawee County Jail, three at the University of Michigan, three in Macomb County, two in Wayne County and single cases in St. Clair and Oakland counties.

Grower-Shipper chairman and Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue said that he's heard an unconfirmed report that a grower in Michigan has been identified as the source of the lettuce but that he's still concerned California could become involved.

"Any incident like this, they never help regardless of the source," Donohue said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday informed the state health department that other states have E. coli cases with the same genetic link as the 26 in Michigan, including two each in Illinois and Ohio and one in Oregon.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney specializing in product litigation, said his office has been retained by some of the people sickened during the outbreak.

Marler said he doesn't know the source of the lettuce and likely won't until health officials complete their trace-back.

"At this point it's all speculation about where it's coming from," Marler said.

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