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Minnesota finds E. coli in lettuce bags

October 19, 2005

The Produce News

Joan Murphy

WASHINGTON - Minnesota officials are calling it the "smoking gun." For the first time, a laboratory has found E. coli O157:H7 in two bags of prepackaged lettuce in connection to the Dole lettuce recall.

In Minnesota, 23 people have become sick because of an E. coli outbreak linked to bagged salads. State health officials began investigating reports of E. coli O157:H7 disease and followed the trail to prepackaged Dole lettuce purchased from at least four different Rainbow Foods grocery stores in the Twin Cities area Sept. 13-16.

Dole issued its recall while noting that the product may have been distributed nationally. Now the outbreak has expanded to include single cases in Wisconsin and Oregon, according to health officials.

On Oct. 6, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture announced its lab had isolated E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in two bags of Dole prepackaged lettuce with the same best if used by" date identified as the likely source of foodborne illnesses reported around the state.

Officials used DNA testing to confirm that it is the same strain as the one identified in the human cases. According to MDA Dairy, Food & Meat Inspection Director Kevin Elfering, the finding will help guide the investigation. "As far as we know, this is the first time a laboratory has been able to isolate E. coli O157:H7 from lettuce in an outbreak," Mr. Elfering said. This is the proverbial 'smoking gun' that we try to identify in every outbreak we investigate. We are still working with FDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to find out how the bacteria got into the lettuce. This information will help us prevent similar problems in the future."

Soon after the news broke, Seattle attorney William Marler issued a statement that pointed to other outbreaks associated with lettuce and advised consumers to wash their triple-rinsed salads. "Washing lettuce can reduce the risk of contamination by a foodborne pathogen such as E. coli O157:H7, but most people who buy prepackaged lettuce do not rewash the product," said Mr. Marler, who has represented plaintiffs in cases against food companies. Consumers cannot be left as the last line of defense. Adulterated lettuce should not be making it into the hands of consumers or retailers, for that matter in the first place."

Dole said that the prewashed, prepackaged salads do not need to be washed before serving, and the Food & Drug Administration agreed.

If the prewashed salad is bagged, it should be safe to serve as is, said an FDA spokesman. FDA has yet to determine how and where the contamination took place, so it would be premature to advise consumers to begin washing all prerinsed salads. It's important, though, for consumers to make sure bagged salads say they are prewashed before skipping that step, he added. "We continue to encourage consumers to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables," said the FDA spokesman. We've already identified the product of concern."

It's irresponsible to advocate to consumers that rewashing the lettuce will get rid of all bacteria, said Jerry Welcome, president of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association in Alexandria, VA. While the industry needs to be more diligent in following good agricultural practices, it's still safe for consumers to serve triple-washed lettuce without rewashing it, he said.

With an industry producing hundreds of millions of pounds of fresh-cut lettuce, it's impossible to catch 100 percent of all pathogens, he added. But the industry is doing everything it can to reduce the likelihood of contaminated product reaching retail shelves, and it must work with the government to pinpoint where the contamination occurred.

Roundy's Supermarkets Inc., owner of Rainbow Foods, said that it moved swiftly to notify its produce supplier of the illnesses and check to see if the product was on the shelf days before Dole issued its recall. However, the perishable product had already been purchased or destroyed, the retailer said. "Our primary concern was and continues to be the safety of our shoppers and the confidence they have in the products we carry, so we conducted a thorough search of all our stores for the affected product, said Robert Mariano, chairman and chief executive officer of Roundy's. But by that time, the product with those code dates had already been sold or removed from our shelves."

The supermarket chain also clarified that it does not carry "Dole American Blend" variety of prepackaged salad mixes listed in the recall notice. "We do carry an American Blend' variety of salad mix, but it is from a totally different producer and it is not affected by this recall action," he said.

More on this outbreak: Dole Lettuce E. coli Outbreak

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