E. Gads: E. Coli outbreak strikes in U.S. and Canada

It was just in time for Thanksgiving!

by Gabby Curran

Staff Lettuce Reporter

Despite its rather barbaric origins, most people would agree that Thanksgiving is about family, celebration, and togetherness. However, no matter how kind we may be, there’s always company that we’d rather avoid than extend a hand to. This year, families were forced to deal with a particularly unwelcome guest at their Thanksgiving tables––an outbreak of the newest strand of E. coli.

For those of you lucky enough to be unacquainted with E. coli, here’s a quick biology lesson. E. coli (short for Escherichia coli) are a kind of bacteria. While most strains are harmless to and even necessary for the human body, others, if contracted, can make you sick. Injurious e. coli bacteria produce a toxin known as Shiga toxin, which damage the lining of the small intestine and trigger the symptoms generally associated with E. coli illness (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/e-coli/symptoms-causes/syc-20372058). As E. coli bacteria commonly resides in the intestines, its pathogenic strains will usually cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Fevers are frequent symptoms of E. coli, though they generally don’t break 101o F/38.5o C according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/ecoli-symptoms.html). Fortunately, most people get better within 5 to 7 days of contracting pathogenic E. coli, though around 5–10% of cases result in hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which in turn can cause kidney failure and even death (https://www.fda.gov/Food/RecallsOutbreaksEmergencies/Outbreaks/ucm626330.htm). There have been a number of E. coli outbreaks in the past, most notably in early 2016, when a number of people became sick after eating at Chipotle restaurants (https://www.fda.gov/food/recallsoutbreaksemergencies/outbreaks/ucm470410.htm).

The most recent E. coli epidemic began in October. Though the U.S. Food & Drug Administration claims its earliest case was reported on Halloween (https://www.fda.gov/Food/RecallsOutbreaksEmergencies/Outbreaks/ucm626330.htm), the CDC states that cases were first reported far earlier, on October 8th (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2018/o157h7-11-18/index.html). Two days before Thanksgiving, both the CDC and the FDA launched an investigation of the outbreak. As of November 29th,  cases of E. coli have been reported in 12 US states and certain areas of Canada (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2018/o157h7-11-18/index.html). There have been no deaths so far, though 16 people have been hospitalized, including one person who developed HUS (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2018/o157h7-11-18/index.html).

According to a survey conducted of those infected, romaine lettuce seems to be the primary culprit of this year’s outbreak (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2018/o157h7-11-18/updates.html). On November 26th, the CDC issued a Food Safety Alert advising people not to consume or sell romaine lettuce for the time being (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2018/o157h7-11-18/index.html), specifically lettuce grown in northern and central California. The outbreak hasn’t resulted in any recalls, with the FDA claiming that it does not have enough information on the outbreak’s origins to request a targeted recall (https://www.fda.gov/Food/RecallsOutbreaksEmergencies/Outbreaks/ucm626330.htm). Nevertheless, on November 20th, a number of produce companies agreed not to sell or serve romaine lettuce to their customers in the wake of the outbreak (https://www.unitedfresh.org/produce-industry-groups-respond-to-protect-consumers-in-romaine-outbreak/). In the meantime, customers have been turning to other leafy greens for their salads and sandwiches; iceberg lettuce is being treated as a viable alternative, with prices soaring 168% in the past few weeks (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/29/lettuce-prices-soar-amid-e-coli-outbreak-linked-to-romaine.html).

The outbreak has received significant media coverage, from USA Today (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2018/11/20/romaine-lettuce-cdc-warns-e-coli-outbreak-ahead-thanksgiving/2070654002/), to Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2018/11/22/do-not-eat-any-romaine-lettuce-cdc-warns-of-another-e-coli-outbreak/#51d170c032e6), to CNN (https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/28/health/romaine-lettuce-update-fda-bn/index.html), to Fox News (https://www.foxnews.com/health/e-coli-outbreak-possibly-linked-to-romaine-lettuce-in-california-fda-official-says). However, despite what the frequent media coverage of the epidemic might have you think, this most recent flare-up of E. coli cases isn’t as sudden and unexpected as it may seem. As far back as June 2018, another outbreak of E. coli originating from romaine lettuce hit the United States and Canada (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2018/o157h7-04-18/index.html). The June outbreak was far more acute, resulting in 210 cases of E. coli reported, 96 hospitalizations, 27 cases of HUS, and 5 deaths, yet received far less coverage.

For the time being, numerous measures and precautions can be taken to avoid contracting E. coli. Despite its low fatality rate, it’s still an unpleasant experience to have, and enduring finals with severe stomach cramping and diarrhea isn’t the best of ways to finish our fall semesters. In addition to romaine lettuce, the CDC also advises people to avoid raw/uncooked meats, unpasteurized dairy products and juices, and to thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables. Good hygiene is also a must––wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, before and after preparing foods, and after being in contact with animals and their environments. Those with weaker immune systems and/or diabetes should also be wary, as they are at a higher risk of contracting E. coli infections (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/ecoli-prevention.html).

Above all, don’t worry––finals are just a few weeks away. Just tell yourself that in the midst of all the studying, suffering, crying, and despair, you probably won’t have time to contract E. coli anyway.

Even if you haven’t consumed romaine lettuce in the past few weeks, contact your doctor or healthcare provider if you develop the following symptoms: persistent (lasting more than three or four days), severe, or bloody diarrhea; a high fever; and/or a significantly decreased frequency of urination. These may be signs of a severe case of E. coli and/or early-onset HUS (https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/ecoli-symptoms.html).

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