Romaine lettuce is named as the likely cause for a 10-state E. coli outbreak that started in October in the St. Louis area and has sickened more than 60 people, according to state and federal officials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified romaine as the likely cause Dec. 7, but did not say where the lettuce was grown.
CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said the agency leaves announcements regarding names of growers and distributors to the regulatory agencies — state health departments and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA did not immediately identify the source of the romaine.
FDA policy analyst and press officer Sebastian Cianci said the farm where the romaine was grown was “no longer in production when the FDA went to conduct an investigation; preliminary findings at the farm did not indentify the source of contamination.
“FDA did sample and test various brands of romaine lettuce but did not find the outbreak strain.”
According to the FDA and CDC, traceback investigations and patient interviews implicated the romaine.
“Traceback analysis determined that a single lot of romaine lettuce harvested from one farm was used to supply the grocery store chain locations as well as university campuses in Minnesota and Missouri where illnesses were also reported,” Cianci said.
“We know the farm from which the lettuce was harvested, but have not named it because we do not know whether or not it was the source of contamination and we don’t want to to suggest that we are implicating a specific member in the supply chain when in fact we are still trying to determine where in the supply chain the contamination occurred,” Cianci said.
As of Dec. 4, according to the CDC report, the states involved and the number of ill persons in each state were: Arizona (1), Arkansas (2), Georgia (1), Illinois (9), Indiana (2), Kansas (3), Kentucky (1), Minnesota (3), Missouri (37), and Nebraska (1).
The outbreak began as early as Oct. 10, according to the CDC’s report, but it wasn’t until Oct. 24 that illnesses were reported in St. Louis. Because of initial reports from patients, St. Louis-based grocer Schnucks voluntarily removed several items from salad bars.
However, tests of 55 food samples from those salad bars returned negative results.
The CDC’s report refers to the salad bars as being at “Chain A.” Schnucks posted a statement on its website Dec. 7 confirming it is the chain referred to in the CDC report.
“Although no tests were positive for E. coli, the CDC believes romaine lettuce consumed between Oct. 5 and 24 was the contaminant,” according to the retailer’s website. ”The outbreak was tracked back to a single lot of romaine lettuce harvested by a single farm.”
According to the CDC, a majority of the sick people ate lettuce that could be “statistically linked” to nine Chain A stores.
“Absent any food safety violations or positive tests results, the CDC declined to name the grocer or the supplier,” according to the Schnucks’ statement. “However, leaders of Schnuck Markets, Inc. are confirming that Schnucks is the entity referred to by the CDC as ‘grocery store Chain A,’ but for the same reasons provided by the CDC, Schnucks declined to name the supplier.”
Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in foodborne illness cases, said he plans to file a lawsuit against Schnucks and other companies in the distribution chain within days on behalf of a St. Louis woman who developed kidney disease, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The requirements for proving a case in civil litigation are not as stringent as what the CDC or FDA might need to confirm the source of an illness, according to the lawyer.
“Most of the time you are never able to trace it back to a farm because by the time people are eating the lettuce, (it) has already been pulled out of the field,” Marler said. “It’s still the responsibility of the chain of distribution for the food that they served the people. Those entities are still legally responsible for the injuries to their customers.”