Romaine lettuce linked to 6 E. coli illnesses in Canada

Six Canadians have been stricken by a strain of E. coli that has a similar genetic fingerprint to romaine lettuce from the U.S. southwest that has already sickened 149 people, federal health officials say.

Public Health Agency of Canada says 2 of the 6 Canadians reported travelling to U.S. before falling ill

If it is determined that contaminated romaine lettuce is in the Canadian market, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it will take steps to protect consumers. (Matthew Mead/Associated Press)

A total of six people in Canada have been sickened by E. coli linked to contaminated romaine lettuce, the Public Health Agency of Canada says.

The Canadian illnesses of E. coli O157 have a similar genetic fingerprint to illnesses reported in the U.S., where 149 people have been infected with an outbreak strain from 29 states, health officials say.

Two of the six people who became sick reported travelling to the U.S. before they became ill, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"Based on the ongoing U.S. outbreak, and the information provided by individuals who became sick, the likely source of the outbreak in Canada is romaine lettuce," the agency said.

Consumers fell sick between late March and mid-April.

The six Canadian illnesses are reported in four provinces:

  • British Columbia (1).
  • Alberta (1).
  • Saskatchewan (2).
  • Ontario (2).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reported the E. coli illnesses are linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region of western Arizona.

The FDA has said the Yuma growing region is no longer producing romaine lettuce and since leafy greens have a shelf-life of 21 days, the potential for exposure to contaminated product is now diminished.

"Canadians who are travelling to the U.S., or who shop for groceries across the border and purchase romaine lettuce in the U.S. are advised to follow the U.S. CDC's advice for U.S. consumers found on their website," the Public Health Agency of Canada said.

Why lettuce isn't recalled

The CDC recommends that consumers not eat or buy romaine lettuce unless you can confirm it is not from the Yuma growing region.

Currently there are no food recalls associated with the outbreak in Canada or the U.S.

"Certainly there's no evidence at the present time that points to any specific … brand of romaine lettuce and therefore at this point we do not have any indication that we could or should be having a food recall," Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer at Public Health Agency of Canada, said in an interview on Thursday.

"Lettuce in any part of the world that's being produced is at risk of contamination and therefore we certainly can't let down our guard."

Njoo stressed the importance of safe handling practices for consumers such as:

  • Wash hands at least 20 seconds with warm soapy water before and after handling lettuce.
  • Remove the outer leaves from a head of lettuce.
  • Run the lettuce under cool running water before you prepare a salad and consume it.

The FDA says the current outbreak is separate from a recent multi-state outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections from November to December 2017 linked to eating leafy greens in Canada and the U.S. as it was an caused by unrelated strain of E.coli.

Typically in winter, romaine lettuce is grown in Arizona because it has the right temperature. Then the growing region for the produce switches to California, said Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph. In all likelihood, the contaminated lettuce is no longer in circulation, he said.

Expect more illness reports

When health officials say numbers are increasing, most often it reflects how they've taken a sample from an ill person, done DNA testing and had the person say yes to eating romaine. That's when their illness is linked to the outbreak, Warriner said. But they would've actually fallen sick two to three weeks earlier.

In the current outbreak, at least 64 people have been hospitalized in the United States, including 17 with a type of kidney failure. One death, previously reported, occurred in California.

Federal health officials in the U.S. say in this outbreak investigation, they've identified romaine lettuce as the common food cause.

U.S. investigators continue to work backwards from those who've fallen ill to trace how consumers may have come into contact with the contamination along the supply chain, such as farms, processors and shippers.

"For a recall to be issued we actually have to have brand information and a specific farm or company to work from," said Peter Cassell, a press officer for the FDA.

Federal and state scientists are working to collect and analyze hundreds of records to trace the source of the contaminated romaine lettuce.

The investigation is continuing, Cassell said.

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