December 11, 2018

Lawyer Investigates: How Did Romaine Lettuce Get Contaminated in the E. coli O157:H7 HUS Outbreak?

The E. coli O157:H7 HUS outbreak that is linked to romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona has baffled investigators. One farm, Harrison Farms in Yuma, has been named as the source of lettuce that sickened eight people in Alaska. But other than issuing a blanket warning about romaine harvested in the Yuma region, no distributors, farms, processors, or stores have been named.

E. coli O157:H7 HUS Chopped Romaine Lettuce Outbreak

As of May 2, 2018, there are 121 people sick in this outbreak. Fifty-two people have been hospitalized. Fourteen have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure. And one person, who lived in California, died.

Briefly, the New Jersey Department of Health named a restaurant that may have served some of the romaine lettuce that made people sick. But the CDC and FDA have not named that facility. No recalls have been issued.

Attorney Brendan Flaherty

Brendan Flaherty said, “The symptoms of an E. coli O157:H7 infection are painful and unmistakable. If you have been sick, please see your doctor.” You can contact Brendan, an attorney with Pritzker Hageman, at 1-888-377-8900.

So what’s going on? Why has this outbreak been so difficult to trace? Restaurants, processors, distributors, harvesters, and farmers are all supposed to keep detailed records of the products they produce, ship, and sell to the public. Why has traceback been so elusive in this outbreak?

Food Poisoning Bulletin asked Brendan Flaherty, an attorney with Pritzker Hageman, why this outbreak has been so difficult to crack.

He said, “One reason is that the opportunity to test products is fleeting. Produce has such a short shelf life. Romaine lettuce lasts for about 21 days after it is processed. Most, if not all, of the romaine lettuce that sickened people has likely been eaten or discarded. The fields where the lettuce was grown have been plowed and irrigated, so if the contamination happened there, those bacteria may have been washed away.”

He added, “The contamination could have occurred with harvesting equipment. But that equipment was most likely cleaned after harvest, which would destroy evidence.”

Third, there are multiple distribution channels for this type of product. In the distribution system in the U.S., lettuce from farms all over the country are shipped to a few distribution centers, where they undergo processing. If a couple of heads of romaine are contaminated, when they are washed, chopped, and mixed, the contamination can spread. And the more the lettuce is processed, the more complicated the trail.

And the regulations rolled out with the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 have not been fully implemented. Those regulations aren’t enforced with inspections yet. Farmers are still being trained in produce safety. And the first inspections of the biggest farms in this country will not begin until 2019.

The lettuce was probably contaminated by fecal material that came from a ruminant animal. But was that bacteria in irrigation water? Was runoff from a nearby factory farm the factor? Did the bacteria come from wild animals in the field? Was a shipping container contaminated, or a harvesting machine? We may never know.

It’s still a good idea to avoid romaine lettuce for the time being. The growing season in Yuma ended in March. As time goes by, not only will the trail grow cold, but it will become safer to eat romaine lettuce again.

Bad Bug Law Team | Pritzker Law Firm

If you or a loved one have been sickened with an E. coli O157:H7 infection or HUS, please contact our experienced attorneys for help at 1-888-377-8900.

The noted law firm Pritzker Hageman helps people who have been sickened by contaminated food protect their legal rights and get answers and compensation. Our lawyers help patients and families of children in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits against schools, retailers, grocery stores, food processors, restaurants, and others. Attorney Fred Pritzker recently won $7.5 million for a young client whose kidneys failed because he developed hemolytic uremic syndrome after an E. coli infection. You should know that class action lawsuits may not be appropriate for outbreak victims because each individual case is different.

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