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Lettuce Suspected in Washington State E. Coli Outbreak

Jun 9, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Another E. coli outbreak, which has sickened 10 people in Washington state, may be  linked to tainted lettuce.  However, while tainted romaine lettuce is the suspected culprit in the Washington E. coli outbreak, no lettuce has been tested.  And now, health officials in the state have conceded that the source of the E. coli outbreak might never be known.

Washington health officials began receiving reports of E. coli in mid May, and the last case that health officials are aware of was reported May 29.  According to, five of the 10 E. coli victims had to be hospitalized and four of those five were released from the hospital by Thursday. About half of the victims were teenagers. Health officials said the lettuce may have been eaten at a restaurant or school. The fact E. coli was linked to a couple of locations leads officials to believe the lettuce  was already contaminated when it was delivered,  as opposed to being contaminated in the foodservice setting

Washington state health officials are being aided in the E. coli investigation by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).  The state is working with local health agencies to see if the source of the E. coli outbreak can be narrowed any further.  However, that looks doubtful, since lettuce has a short shelf-life, and any associated with the E. coli outbreak would have been consumed or discarded by now.

In the past several years, outbreaks of food poisoning, including E. coli, from fresh vegetables have become an increasing problem.  In fact, one of the biggest E. coli outbreaks in recent years was attributed to fresh spinach.  In September 2006, bagged fresh baby spinach sold by the Dole Food Company was linked to an E. coli outbreak that was blamed for the deaths of three people and illness in 200 others. Since then, several other recalls of E. coli contaminated lettuce and other greens have made headlines. According to the CDC, of the 10,421 food borne disease outbreaks reported during the 13-year period, 502 (4.8 percent) were associated to leafy greens. Most of these outbreaks (58.3 percent) involved Norovirus, followed by Salmonella (10.4 percent) and E. coli (8.9 percent).

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), E. coli is responsible for sickening 73,000 people every year, and of those, 60 will die from the disease. E. coli is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the intestines of most animals, including humans, but the E. coli 0157:H7 strain can be particularly dangerous to people. The symptoms of E. coli poisoning usually occur within 3 to 9 days after a victim eats contaminated foods. E. coli 0157:H7 causes the sudden onset of stomach pain and severe cramps, followed by diarrhea that is watery and bloody. While most people will recover completely within a week, E. coli poisoning can be very dangerous for children, the elderly and anyone with a weak immune system. In some cases, E. coli 0157:H7 will cause a disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be life-threatening.

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