According to the Seattle Times, fourteen unconfirmed cases of E. coli O157:H7 contamination are being investigated by the Snohomish Health District. Suzanne Pate, district spokeswoman, said the district’s nurses noted two cases last week and on Friday asked Snohomish County physicians to do further testing if patients came in with bloody diarrhea for at least two days, symptoms of E. coli. By noon today, medical professionals in the county had reported a total of 14 cases, none which had been confirmed by additional testing, which can take several days.

In addition to the 14 sick in Washington, 1en are sick in Vermont, traced to contaminated beef, and an outbreak in Ontario, Canada has made at least 159 ill.  In September, an outbreak that sickened more than 45 people in Michigan, Illinois, and Canada was traced to contaminated lettuce.  Also in September, 17 illnesses in Colorado were traced to a restaurant, but no ingredient has yet been targeted as the culprit.  And this is the off-season.

“We usually see E. coli outbreaks spike in the summer,” said Seattle food borne illness attorney William Marler.  “A surge of outbreaks like this in the fall— in widely different areas and carried by different vehicles— is very unusual, and very alarming.

E. coli is often contracted by consuming food or beverage that has been contaminated by animal (especially cattle) manure.  Data from the Centers for Disease Control show that over the last 12 years, twenty-two E. coli outbreaks have been traced specifically to leafy greens, including the spinach outbreak in 2006, which made more than 200 ill and caused four deaths.  E. coli outbreaks traced to beef—often but not always ground beef—have been on a sharp uptick since the spring of 2007.  In a little over a year and a half, more than 40 million pounds of contaminated beef has been recalled. 

“Twenty million tons of beef containing a pathogen that can cause serious illness and even death—that’s just a staggering figure.” continued Marler.  And it’s even worse when you put it up against the total recall number for 2006 – just over 180,000 pounds.  The next president is going to have some monumental tasks ahead of him when he takes office, and I can tell you that there are at least 14 people in Washington – 15 if you count me—who feel that food safety needs to be one of them.”