E. Coli Outbreak: A Dangerous Strain Has Infected 17 Americans. Is Romaine Lettuce The Culprit?

Seventeen Americans have fallen ill from a strain of E. coli that’s already linked to a major ongoing outbreak in Canada, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Thursday. The strain of E. coli identified in the outbreak, O157:H7, is considered particularly dangerous and more likely to cause serious illnesses. The American cases are spread across 13 states; there are three cases in California alone.

According to the CDC’s press release on the outbreak, preliminary results show that the bacteria implicated in both outbreaks are genetically related and the agency is doing further testing to confirm if there they’re really the same.

Canadian health authorities have already established that romaine lettuce was the source of the outbreak in that country; the CDC is investigating if the Americans who are sick also ate romaine lettuce or have other potentially contaminated food in common.

Like the Canadian outbreak, the cases reported in the United States happened in the last two months.  

E. coli petri dish A lab technician holds a bacteria culture that shows a positive infection of enterohemorrhagic E. coli, also known as the EHEC bacteria, from a patient at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf on June 2, 2011 in Hamburg, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

At least 40 Canadians in five provinces, including Quebec and Ontario, have gotten sick over the last two months. One person died. A major Canadian grocery chain, Sobey’s, pulled 300 romaine lettuce products from store shelves on Sunday, the Canadian Press reported.

This particular strain of E. coli actually produces proteins called Shiga toxins; the bacteria involved with the Canadian and U.S. outbreaks is among the most common Shiga-toxin producing type. People who are infected with E. coli experience a variety of nasty gastrointestinal symptoms, including bad stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea (which the CDC notes is “often bloody.”) The symptoms usually start about three or four days after a person eats whatever the bacteria was on.

A variety of food products can be contaminated with E. coli; the last item recalled due to this particular strain of the bacteria was a kind of soy-based peanut butter substitute. Thirty-two people got sick and a dozen were hospitalized; the company filed for bankruptcy two months after a recall was announced.

Canadians who still want to eat lettuce should consider eating different kinds of greens, the Public Health Agency of Canada suggested. However, since no definitive cause has been identified yet for the U.S. outbreak, the CDC is stopping short of recommending that Americans avoid certain foods. For now, your salads may be safe.

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