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CU urges health officials to take more aggressive steps to identify source of E. coli outbreak as CDC reports more illnesses

January 10, 2018

Consumer Reports: Avoid eating romaine lettuce as health officials investigate

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced today that it had identified seven more cases of people in the U.S. who have become ill from a dangerous strain of E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.  The CDC indicated that the U.S. cases are a genetic near match to illnesses in Canada where the government found a correlation with eating romaine lettuce.  The agency says leafy greens are the “likely source,” but the specific type of leafy green is unknown, and its investigation continues.

Food safety experts at Consumer Reports are continuing to advise that consumers stop eating romaine lettuce until the cause of the outbreak in the U.S. is identified and addressed.  This is especially important for young children, the elderly and anyone who is immune compromised as they are more vulnerable to infection.

“We continue to think it prudent to avoid romaine lettuce for now,” said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports.

Halloran urged the CDC and Canadian officials to share their raw data on the outbreak and called on the FDA to request and review internal bacterial testing data from producers of romaine lettuce in order to pinpoint the source of the E. coli bacteria that has triggered the illnesses.

“This is a dangerous strain of E. coli that can cause severe illness and even death,” said Jean Halloran.  “Health officials need to take more aggressive steps to protect the public.  In order to ensure that this threat to consumers’ health won’t continue or happen again, the government needs to identify the source.”

According to the CDC, 24 people have been sickened by the E. coli outbreak in 15 states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington state.  The recent outbreak has caused one death in California, another in Canada, and at least 22 hospitalizations in both countries.

In today’s statement, the CDC said that the last reported illness started on December 12. The CDC noted that any romaine that was on the shelves at the time of the last reported infection would likely be long gone by now. However, James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of Food Safety and Research at Consumer Reports, cautions that this position could give consumers a false sense of security. “Without knowing exactly what caused this outbreak, we risk seeing a new batch of tainted product come onto the market,” he said. “For instance, if the equipment at a processing plant is contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, new product could become a source of further infections.”

Consumer Reports says consumers should assume that any romaine lettuce, even when sold in bags and packages, could possibly be contaminated.  Do not buy romaine lettuce and don’t use any that you may have in your refrigerator until there is more information on the source of contamination.  Consumers should also check salad blends and mixes, and avoid those that contain romaine.

Contact:  Michael McCauley, mmccauley@consumer.org, 415-902-9537 (cell) or David Butler, dbutler@consumer.org, 202-462-6262