California Lettuce Fingered In US/Canada E. coli O157:H7 Outbreaks

Romaine lettuce grown on a California farm is the probable source of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses that were reported in April and May in California, New Brunswick and Quebec.

The binational outbreak sickened at least 18 people in New Brunswick (Canada) and nine residents of California. At least one resident of Quebec also was infected with the same outbreak strain.

The New Brunswick outbreak victims ate at Jungle Jim’s, a restaurant in Miramichi, between April 23rd and April 26th, and had consumed romaine lettuce, either in a salad, as part of a wrap, or as a garnish on hamburger. Most of the nine California victims had eaten at a single (unnamed) restaurant in April 2012, according to information provided by Ronald Owens (Office of Public Affairs, California Department of Public Health). A case control study implicated lettuce as the source of the California outbreak. No information has been released on the Quebec cases(s).

California was notified in May by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that CDC had learned of an outbreak in Canada, caused by the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 as the California illnesses. Traceback investigations carried out by Canada and California both led to a single California farm that supplied lettuce to the California restaurant and to Jungle Jim’s in New Brunswick. Lettuce from the implicated fields was also supplied to Quebec.

Unfortunately, tracing the source of the lettuce did not lead to the source of the contamination. According to Ronald Owens, FDA and California followed up at the farm, but could not identify what might have led to the contamination. “The field had long since been harvested at the time of the investigation,” Owens explained in his email to me, “and all lettuce from the implicated lots had long since been consumed or disposed.”

In addition to shining a spotlight on the behind-the-scenes cooperation that takes place between federal, state and provincial health agencies in the USA and Canada, this outbreak investigation also highlights a significant difference in attitude and responsiveness between the New Brunswick Department of Health and the California Department of Public Health.

In its May 15, 2012 update on the Miramichi outbreak – the last update that appears on the Province’s website – a promise was made to release the results of the outbreak investigation. I have twice requested a copy of the investigation report, and both requests have been ignored. Not refused. Ignored.

In comparison, I requested information on the California investigation by email on the evening of Friday, July 13th. I received a complete and substantive reply today – less than one business day after making the request. My thanks to Ronald Owens of the CDPH Office of Public Affairs for his prompt and thorough attention to my information request.

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