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E. coli Lettuce Served at Taco Johns Came from California Ranch

Feb 25, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The cause of a 2006 Taco Johns E. coli outbreak has finally been determined.  The Wegis Ranch in Buttonwillow, California grew the bacteria-infested lettuce that sickened 81 people in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in 2006, a team of state and federal regulators concluded.  Investigators said they found positive samples of E. coli at Wegis Ranch and at two neighboring dairies.  The lettuce was served at two Taco John's restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota and illnesses were reported in November and December of 2006.  Although no deaths were reported, 26 people were hospitalized.  The findings were released in a report dated February 15 and prepared by the California Department of Public Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The study revealed that E. coli samples taken from the ranch and the Maya and West Star North dairies were genetic matches to the strain that was found in the lettuce that sickened so many.

Regulators traced the shipments of shredded lettuce back to Wegis where they discovered that the ranch is located near two dairies and used some wastewater from the dairies to irrigate fields where grain was grown for animal feed. While the report did not definitely state how the lettuce became contaminated it did suggest that the Regis Ranch had inadequate protection for its water system and that the dairy wastewater system and the ranch's irrigation system shared some piping. Apparently, the irrigation system lacked proper protection against backflow that could have allowed manure-tainted wastewater to reach fields next to those where lettuce grew, mixing farm fresh water with contaminated water, the study said.  The ranch says it stopped growing lettuce because of the investigation and the cucumbers and tomatoes it produces are processed with heat to kill germs.

Escherichia coli is a relatively common bacteria found in the human gut—or digestive tract—and is normally harmless; however, some strains, including those linked to food poisoning, are serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia.  The elderly are most at risk, particularly those living in nursing homes.

In the last two years, a variety of food pathogens have killed several people, sickened more than 1,300 others, and touched nearly every state in the country as well as Canada.  The problem is difficult to police because the food-surveillance system is outdated, under-funded, and overwhelmed by the emergence of mega-farms, -distribution centers, and -transporters.  Scientists have expressed concern that infections from antibiotic resistant E.coli bacteria are spreading into the greater population and several countries also now report cases of antibiotic-resistant E.coli.  Other researchers compare the E.coli threat to the worldwide problem of community-acquired MRSA—methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—an antibiotic-resistant staph developing resistance to the last drug of choice.

In addition to the spread of E. coli and its growing resistance to traditional medications, it seems there is emerging data that the negative health effects of E. coli can remain for months and years later.  These illnesses can have long-term, lasting effects that can either linger for months or years or can show up months or years after the original illness.


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