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Suppliers Eyed in Canada E. coli

Nov 11, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

In the wake of a widespread E. coli outbreak that has been ongoing in Canada, the third of three implicated Ontario restaurants, which were closed in the scare, has reopened.  Meanwhile, the rise in E. coli cases has many wondering if a food supplier is the outbreak’s source.  Johnathan's Family Restaurant in Burlington was approved to reopen yesterday, and another restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake and one in Welland both reopened last week.

Though provincial investigators continue to test samples, officials in Niagara, Halton Region, and Guelph strongly suspect produce tainted prior to delivery is to blame.  "It seems likely there was contaminated produce in the commercial market being distributed to restaurants back to the mid-part of October," said Dr. Doug Sider of Niagara Region Public Health.  The current count of confirmed cases indicates 24 confirmed cases in Niagara, Halton, Guelph, and Waterloo.  Recent laboratory tests have linked cases in each area with the same strain of E. coli, 0157:H7.  Meanwhile, another 64 suspected cases are being investigated.

While officials in Niagara are not reporting any new cases, health authorities in Guelph have widened their warning to anyone who may be experiencing symptoms of E. coli, not necessarily to those who ate at the Pita Pit restaurant at the University of Guelph, an initial suspect in this outbreak.  Andrew Morrison of the Health Ministry said, "We're still accepting food samples."

In 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.  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.  While some E. coli strains are necessary for digestion, others are harmful, deadly, and toxin-producing.  These are part of a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli, or VTECs, also known as Shiga-producing E. coli.  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.  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 outbreak.


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