E. coli-Tainted Lettuce Came from CaliforniaOct 10, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Officials confirmed that California is the source of the E. coli-contaminated lettuce that sickened 36 people in Michigan and believe that the food product involved is likely industrial-size packages of iceberg lettuce sold to restaurants and institutions. Aunt Mid's Produce Company, out of Detroit, Michigan, sold some of the lettuce linked to the illnesses, according to the Michigan and Illinois health agencies. Aunt Mid’s has stopped lettuce distribution.
"Illness dates, ship dates, and delivery dates narrow the origin to California," said Jennifer Holton, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the California Department of Public Health is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the state of Michigan, said Ken August, a spokesman with the California agency. August noted that the exact contamination source remains unknown.
And while the Michigan Department of Community Health believes lettuce to be the "common link" among all the cases, the produce perishes so quickly that the state agencies were unable to test packages produced in the outbreak's time frame, according to Holton. To date, all E. coli testing conducted on lettuce has been returned with negative results.
The outbreak began in early September, sickening people at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Lenawee County Jail. Six Illinois residents also were sickened from late August to mid-September, Illinois health officials said. The outbreak also sickened several other people in New York, Ohio, and Oregon. Following the announcement that the illnesses were linked to Aunt Mid’s lettuce, MSU removed iceberg lettuce from its residence halls.
Regarding the diversity of locations affected, MSU University Physician Beth Alexander said, “That pretty much nailed the fact that it was a national distributor.” A release from Aunt Mid’s stated that, “There can be many distributors of one farm. If you trace it back to where the product is produced they might sell to several distributors.” Although MSU cafeterias will continue to provide other types of lettuce, Alexander was unsure when iceberg lettuce would return to the university’s menus.
The state connected lettuce supplies from MSU, the Lenawee County Jail, and a restaurant in Illinois, said James McCurtis, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health. “So far, it points to Aunt Mid’s,” he said. “As we progress, there might be other vendors.” After learning that the state suspected lettuce as the cause of the outbreak, Alexander said MSU’s iceberg lettuce was removed from dining halls within 15 minutes. “I don’t think there’s much question about it being lettuce,” Alexander said. “Fresh produce and ground beef are the two most common sources.”
E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces. Some strains are necessary for digestion; some are harmful, deadly, and toxin-producing and part of a group of E. coli called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli, or VTECs. Of particular concern is the virulent, sometimes deadly E. coli O157:H7 strain that is part of this group and that is generally found to be the culprit in E. coli-related food-borne illness outbreak. Strain O157:H7 has been confirmed to be to blame in this outbreak.