Earlier today the CDC confirmed that 60 persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported from 10 states linked to the consumption of romaine lettuce.  The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Arizona (1), Arkansas (2), Georgia (1), Illinois (9), Indiana (2), Kansas (3), Kentucky (1), Minnesota (3), Missouri (37), and Nebraska (1). 

E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks associated with ”leafy-greens” –  lettuce or spinach, specifically the “pre-washed” and “ready-to-eat” varieties, are by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, the frequency with which this country’s fresh produce consuming public has been hit by outbreaks of pathogenic bacteria is astonishing.

By way of illustration, in October 2003, thirteen residents of a California retirement home were sickened, and two people died, after eating E. coli-contaminated, pre-washed spinach; in September 2003, nearly forty patrons of a California restaurant chain fell ill after eating salads prepared with bagged, pre-washed lettuce; and in July 2002, over fifty young women fell ill with E. coli O157:H7 at a dance camp after eating “pre-washed” lettuce, leaving several hospitalized and one with life-long kidney damage. And this is just a small sampling of the twenty or more E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks since 1995 in which spinach or lettuce was the source. Several more, including the September 2005 Dole lettuce outbreak, and the infamous September 2006 Dole baby spinach outbreak, appear in the chart below, which is based, in part, on information gathered by the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

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The 2008 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Pierce and Thurston Counties, Washington, occurred against the backdrop of an awakened national consciousness about the safety of our nation’s food supply—particularly, its fresh produce.  According to the CDC, 26 confirmed and 7 probable cases from 5 states were linked to the Freshway E. coli O145 outbreak in April and May 2010. The number of cases identified from each state involved in the outbreak is as follows: MI (11 confirmed and 2 probable), NY (5 confirmed and 2 probable), OH (8 confirmed and 3 probable), PA (1 confirmed), and TN (1 confirmed). Multiple students attending The Ohio State University are included in the CDC’s confirmed and probable case counts.

The September 2006 spinach outbreak put the subject of produce safety on the map for everybody, much as it should have for every grower and manufacturer in the country. Nonetheless, outbreaks have continued, as the victims of this particular outbreak know all too well.