Two school districts in county got tainted lettuce, officials say


State health officials yesterday were retracing the path of a salad mix now linked to 27 probable cases of E. coli food poisoning in San Diego and Orange counties.

They believe the product may have gone to school districts elsewhere in the state.

"We're right in the midst of the investigation, working with the counties that can help us remove the product from sale," said Jim Waddell, chief of the food and drug branch of the state Department of Health Services in Sacramento.

He confirmed that Alpine Union and San Marcos Unified school districts in San Diego County received some quantities of the suspect salad mix, but wouldn't name the other districts or where they are located.

"The important thing is that we identify where the product is and get it out of the channels of commerce," Waddell said. He emphasized that the salad mix has not been sold to grocery stores or other retail outlets, so it is not in the hands of general consumers.

The state has joined with health officials from a variety of unnamed counties, state experts in communicable disease and officials from the federal Food and Drug Administration, Waddell said.

They are taking samples from agricultural, processing and distribution areas such as conveyor belts. Health officials have identified one company they are investigating as Gold Coast Produce Co. of Oxnard.

Of 27 patients believed infected with the potentially lethal strain of bacteria, most are children. Twenty-two cases are in San Diego County and five are in Orange County. Locally, all but one person ate salads at Pat & Oscar's restaurants in Mission Valley, El Cajon and Carlsbad's Westfield Shoppingtown Plaza Camino Real and Palomar Airport Road locations between Sept. 30 and Sunday, county officials said.

Two of the 22 are children in the Alpine Union School District, one of whom ate at a Pat & Oscar's, said Dr. Nancy Bowen, San Diego County Public Health officer.

The ages of the San Diego County patients range from 17 months to 84 years. While most were hospitalized for a day or more, all are expected to recover with no serious consequences.

The Orange County patients ate salads at Pat & Oscar's locations in Irvine, Orange and Buena Park, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Department said.

All patients developed some or all of the symptoms of E. coli food poisoning: bloody diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and nausea.

Officials for the FDA and state health department are analyzing human samples to confirm cases. None of the officials could be reached for comment.

At a news conference yesterday, Bowen called the outbreak "unusual" because while E. coli bacteria causes serious illness in about two people a month in San Diego County, normally it is linked to undercooked beef, not lettuce.

In San Marcos Unified, Pam McCoy, director of child nutrition services, said yesterday the school district received calls from parents of four children kept home with stomach aches, but none had a primary symptom of E. coli illness.

Thus, McCoy said, it does not appear any of the district's 14,500 students has the infection.

As a precaution, the district threw out all of the lettuce it received this week from Gold Coast Produce and has changed its supplier to Field Fresh.

"When in doubt, we throw it out," McCoy said. The district also sent letters yesterday informing parents of the situation.