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Aunt Mid's Denies E. coli Link and Resumes Lettuce Packaging

Oct 15, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Aunt Mid's, the company linked to an ongoing E. coli outbreak in connection with its large, industrial-sized iceberg lettuce salad packages, has resumed production of the packages at its Detroit facility.  Meanwhile, an investigation into an E. coli outbreak blamed on California lettuce used by Aunt Mid’s continues, Michigan health and agriculture officials reported yesterday.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture conducted product and environmental sample testing at Aunt Mid’s the last week of September, with additional testing conducted by the state health department, Michigan State University, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Aunt Mid's.  The tests all came back negative because, according to state health officials, lettuce from the outbreak was not available at the time of the testing.

A total of 50 cases of E. coli, all containing the same genetic fingerprint, have been reported since September 1, which includes 38 cases in Michigan, nine in Illinois, and three from the Ontario province in Canada.  In Michigan, cases involved a group of Michigan State University (MSU) students and some inmates at the Lenawee County Jail.  Authorities say all those who fell ill ate contaminated lettuce from the large commercial bags sold by Aunt Mid's.  Twenty-one of the 50 sickened have been hospitalized and one of those hospitalized now has HUS, or hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure linked to food poisoning.

No new illnesses are expected now that the contaminated lettuce was identified by authorities and is no longer available, state health officials said.  Despite Aunt Mid’s claims otherwise, an investigation that included independent studies in Michigan and Illinois confirmed iceberg lettuce as the source of the illness with a Michigan Department of Agriculture traceback investigation finding that Aunt Mid's was the common processor of iceberg lettuce that was washed, cut, and bagged.  The investigations also confirmed that the lettuce originated in California; however, how the contamination occurred remains unclear, according to Michigan agricultural officials. The California Department of Public Health continues its investigation into the origin and handling of the lettuce.

Michigan health officials note that these types of traceback investigations are time consuming because records must be reviewed and data analyzed, including patient data, which requires testing to determine the origin of the illness and the food involved.

Aunt Mid’s Chair and President Phillip Riggio, said, "When you're a reputable company like we are, and known for our food safety and good manufacturing practices, it hurts."  When asked about its suppliers, Riggio said, "We make certain that they have good agricultural practices in place, and their fields are tested; their product is tested.  Then we test it when it arrives at our plant."

E. coli may cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, deadly septicemia, and death.  In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness, sickening about 73,000 and killing 61; last year, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.


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