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Wisconsin officials find E. coli in bagged romaine salad from Salinas Valley, California

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
FILE - This Nov. 20, 2018 file photo shows Romaine Lettuce in Simi Valley, Calif.  U.S. health officials are telling people to avoid romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, Calif., Friday, Nov. 22, 2019,  as they investigate a food poisoning outbreak. They also say not to eat the leafy green if the label doesn't say where it was grown.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) reports that state officials have found Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli O157) bacteria in an unopened bag of pre-washed chopped romaine collected from an ill person’s home. Additional laboratory testing is pending to determine if the E. coli O157 found in the pre-washed chopped romaine matches the strain causing the multi-state outbreak linked to romaine lettuce.

The discover was part of the ongoing investigation into the multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections, Wisconsin health and food safety officials said.

The E. coli O157 bacteria was found in a bag of chopped Fresh Express® brand Leafy Green Romaine lettuce with a use by date of 11/14/2019 and lot code of Z301 A05B. The source of the romaine identified on the packaging was Salinas Valley, California.

While the bacteria was found in a bag of Fresh Express® brand romaine, it is important to note that not all ill persons in Wisconsin that are included in this outbreak have reported consuming Fresh Express® brand salads, according to the DHS. At this time, no single product, brand, or variety of salad has been reported by all ill individuals. The investigation is ongoing to determine the source of contamination and if additional products are linked to illness.

On Dec. 10, Minnesota state health officials said five Minnesotans have gotten sick from eating salad kits linked to an outbreak of E. coli. 

The Minnesota Department of Health says the Minnesotans became ill between Nov. 8 and Nov. 16. Two people were hospitalized. The ill Minnesotans ranged in age from 21 to 91. Four were from the Minneapolis-St. Paul are and one from Greater Minnesota.

Officials say nine people from three states have gotten sick. The infections are linked to Fresh Express Sunflower Crisp Chopped Salad Kits. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a safety alert about the salad kits.

Check product labels

Officials advise consumers not to consume any products containing romaine lettuce from Salinas Valley, California, regardless of brand. While some romaine-containing products were recalled on Nov. 21, 2019, romaine from Salinas Valley is still available on many store shelves. It is important to look at product labels for any mention of Salinas Valley, California, and avoid purchasing these products.

DHS also advises consumers to check their refrigerators for any lettuce mixes containing romaine from the Salinas Valley and throw them away. Produce drawers and refrigerator surfaces should be cleaned thoroughly after throwing out the product.

As of Dec. 9, 2019, Wisconsin now has 33 cases included in this multi-state outbreak. Available epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback evidence indicate that romaine lettuce from the Salinas, California, growing region is the likely source of this outbreak.

Illnesses in Wisconsin residents started on dates ranging from Nov. 7, 2019 – Nov. 19, 2019. Two cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure, have been reported and 14 people have been hospitalized. At this time, 97% of ill persons report eating leafy greens in the week before becoming sick; 88% of ill persons report consuming or possibly eating romaine lettuce in the week before they became sick. Food safety and regulatory officials are still working to identify the potential source of contamination and understand how it happened.

Related:US officials: Don't eat romaine grown in Salinas, California

DHS urges consumers to continue to avoid the purchase and consumption of romaine from Salinas Valley, California. Specific advice to consumers, restaurants, and retailers can be found on the CDC outbreak website or the DHS Outbreak webpage.

E. coli lawsuit filed

PRNewswire reported that OFT Food Safety & Injury Lawyers filed the first lawsuit in the multistate 2019 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, California. The lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court for Milwaukee County (File No. 2019 CV 009273) on Dec. 5, 2019.

The Plaintiff in the lawsuit contracted an E. coli infection from lettuce purchased at Pick 'n Save in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She ultimately developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal complication of E. coli infections that causes kidney failure. The suit names Roundy's Supermarkets Inc., the parent company of Pick 'n Save, as a defendant.

OFT Food Safety Lawyer Brendan Flaherty says that the outbreak shows a deep problem with the industry. "The human cost of E. coli contamination in romaine has been staggering. Where are the field-to-fork changes that will stop this from happening?"

Ryan Osterholm, Food Safety Lawyer at OFT Law, says his client wants answers to help stop future outbreaks. "This is at least the fifth E. coli outbreak in the last several years with leafy greens. Whatever is causing these outbreaks must stop. We fully intend to get to the bottom of exactly how a bag of lettuce almost killed our client."

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.