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Lettuce Eyed in Canada E. coli

Nov 12, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP We reported earlier this week that, the third of three implicated Ontario, Canada restaurants, which were closed in a widespread E. coli scare, has reopened.  Meanwhile, the rise in E. coli cases has many wondering if a food supplier is the outbreak’s source.  Now, food inspectors are saying that lettuce is the likely culprit in four E. coli outbreaks in southwestern Ontario that sickened some two dozen people.

"Romaine lettuce is the prime suspect," Rene Cardinal, an official with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said.  Also, Doug Sider, Niagara Region's associate medical officer of health, concluded that the romaine lettuce was the only item significantly related to the cases.  Officials will begin tracing lettuce suppliers and distributors should that link be confirmed through more testing.  Meanwhile, health officials are unable to confirm the source of October’s unrelated E. coli outbreak in North Bay, Canada.

Right now, there are 128 confirmed or probable cases of E. coli O157:H7 in Canada’s Niagara, Halton, Guelph, and Waterloo regions; Niagra reports14 confirmed cases and there are five each in Halton and Guelph and two in Waterloo.  Also, a Harvey's restaurant linked to an E. coli outbreak in North Bay is scheduled to reopen today following testing of food and environmental samples, which came back negative for contamination. The restaurant has been thoroughly sanitized, say public health inspectors.  As of Tuesday, there were 251 people with confirmed, probable or suspected cases of E. coli O157:H7. Of those, 50 have been confirmed and one child remains in critical condition at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto with a complication from E. coli.

In Canada’s Waterloo Region, two high-school students contracted the E. coli bacteria and public health officials expect to keep the cafeteria at St. Mary's High School in Kitchener closed for a few more days this week.  That region's associate medical officer of health, Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, noted that provincial investigators continue to look at whether the outbreak is linked to romaine lettuce.

The same the genetic code also recently showed up in five E. coli cases in the United States in Southern California, South Dakota, and New Jersey, said Dr. Bob Nosal, medical officer of health for Halton.  Nosal called the similarities very suspicious.  "When this rare (genetic code) was showing up in the U.S., it was obviously of interest," Nosal said. "This is how complex (the investigation) becomes.  In Ontario, the cases are quite close geographically.  So when you get something that rare showing up in the U.S., you really wonder—is it possibly linked?"  The health units are collaborating with the Ontario Ministry of Health, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces known to cause contaminations in meat, produce, and water and often spread due to shoddy and sloppy slaughtering practices. Of particular concern is the virulent, sometimes deadly E. coli O157:H7 strain that is part of this group and is generally blamed in E. coli outbreaks.  E. coli may cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, deadly septicemia, and death.

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