The numbers are staggering from any perspective, with 5 fatalities and nearly 200 identified victims in an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that has swept across 35 stats so far. Traditionally, the higher number of victims the easier it is for investigators to perform a trace-back investigation and identify the precise source of the bacteria. Unfortunately, the precise origin of the E. coli bacteria is not known, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA) have isolated the growing region where all the tainted Romaine lettuce originated. According to the FDA’s Scott Gottlieb, the agency commissioner, the Yuma region in Arizona, which provides 85% of the nation’s Romaine lettuce during the winter months, was home to all of the implicated shipments. Beyond that, however, commissioner Gottlieb stated it is impossible to say whether the Romaine lettuce was contaminated at harvest, during delivery, or by who. Complicating the issue is that fact that much of the Romaine lettuce linked to the outbreak was consumed from bags of chopped Romaine (salad-ready) that, during production, is made by mixing together Romaine lettuce from many suppliers or originating farms.
The Romaine lettuce on the market now is safe to eat, says the CDC, because the tainted Romaine lettuce was last harvested in April and the 21-day shelf-life has expired. Unlike other foods, such as fruits or packaged goods, this outbreak can be deemed as over since Romaine lettuce is not traditionally frozen (which does not kill E. coli) nor used in dried products which have a lengthy shelf-life. The CDC does not expect additional cases of this particular strain of E coli O157:H7 from this outbreak, though it remains possible due to secondary infections and cross contamination.
While the official count is currently 197 identified victims, it is widely believed that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms the number of victims in his Romaine lettuce E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. The CDC estimates that in an outbreak like this, that only about one-in-thirty of the victims will receive the proper medical attention and testing required to be recognized in the official count of victims. Because E. coli O157:H7 is a reportable disease, and because it is one of the few strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli that are identifiable in a routine culture, having a stool culture will (in most cases) put health investigators on notice of the presence of this highly communicable disease. When people do not seek medical attention, whether because they choose to ride out the disease or due to lack of resources, their case is not reported and their information does not become part of the final report on the outbreak. The reporting process is also slow, with a significant lag-time. It can take several weeks for a properly tested person’s culture to be counted in the official numbers.
Ironically, Romaine lettuce was also implicated in Canada in the heels of this outbreak, and the strain of E. coli O157:H7 in that outbreak was a close relative of the one identified in the U.S. thereafter. It remains uncertain if the two strains are from the same source (genetic mutations do occur) or if the two outbreaks were merely a coincidence. This U.S. outbreak is one of the largest, and only a small handful of cases smaller than one that occurred in 2006 where 205 victims were identified in an outbreak linked to baby spinach – leafy greens are an e. coli and salmonella favorite because they contaminate easily, and not subject to heat treatment, and are difficult to clean.
If you, or someone you care about, are the victim of a food borne illness, you need a lawyer who understands food poisoning cases. The Gomez Trial Attorneys have experience representing the victims of national and local outbreaks of tainted food. We have successfully litigated many of these cases, and are prepared to handle serious illness and wrongful death cases stemming from food borne pathogens.
For a free consultation, contact Gomez Trial Attorneys today.