Public Health Agency of Canada says 2 of the 6 Canadians reported travelling to U.S. before falling ill

CBC News

A total of six people in Canada have been sickened by E. coli linked to contaminated romaine lettuce, the Public Health Agency of Canada says.

The Canadian illnesses of E. coli O157 have a similar genetic fingerprint to illnesses reported in the U.S., where 149 people have been infected with an outbreak strain from 29 states, health officials say.

Two of the six people who became sick reported travelling to the U.S. before they became ill, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“Based on the ongoing U.S. outbreak, and the information provided by individuals who became sick, the likely source of the outbreak in Canada is romaine lettuce,” the agency said.

Consumers fell sick between late March and mid-April.

The six Canadian illnesses are reported in four provinces:

  • British Columbia (1).
  • Alberta (1).
  • Saskatchewan (2).
  • Ontario (2).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reported the E. coli illnesses are linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region of western Arizona.

The FDA has said the Yuma growing region is no longer producing romaine lettuce and since leafy greens have a shelf-life of 21 days, the potential for exposure to contaminated product is now diminished.

“Canadians who are travelling to the U.S., or who shop for groceries across the border and purchase romaine lettuce in the U.S. are advised to follow the U.S. CDC’s advice for U.S. consumers found on their website,” the Public Health Agency of Canada said.

No lettuce recall

The CDC recommends consumers not to eat or buy romaine lettuce unless you can confirm it is nor from the Yuma growing region.

Currently there are no food recalls associated with the outbreak in Canada or the U.S.

The federal government says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will take steps to protect the public if it is determined that contaminated romaine lettuce is in the Canadian market.

The FDA says the current outbreak is not related to a recent multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections from November to December 2017 linked to eating leafy greens in Canada and the U.S.

Typically in winter, romaine lettuce is grown in Arizona because it has the right temperature. Then the growing region for the produce switches to California, said Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph. In all likelihood, the contaminated lettuce is no longer in circulation, he said.

When health officials say numbers are increasing, most often it reflects how they’ve taken a sample from an ill person, done DNA testing and had the person say yes to eating romaine. That’s when their illness is linked to the outbreak, Warriner said. But they would’ve actually fallen sick two to three weeks earlier.

When a source of an original outbreak isn’t identified, it leaves open the possibility of contamination occurring again, he said.

To encourage consumer confidence, Warriner believes there should have been a recall of romaine lettuce from Arizona.

“You might say, well there’s no lettuce to recall, but at least it’s a very definitive statement. When you give health advisories you’re basically telling the consumer well it’s your risk. If you want to take it you can but we’ve warned you against it. That’s very different from a product recall, which is a more, stronger statement.”

At least 64 people have been hospitalized in the United States, including 17 with kidney failure. One death, previously reported, occurred in California.

Federal health officials in the U.S. say in this outbreak investigation, they’ve identified romaine lettuce as the common food source, but the available packaging doesn’t offer many clues on the source of the products themselves.

Federal and state scientists are working to collect and analyze hundreds or records to trace the source of the contaminated romaine lettuce.

“To date, our traceback has revealed that romaine lettuce potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 came from the Yuma growing region, but was supplied to restaurants and retailers through multiple processors, grower/shipper companies, and farms.”

There is only one farm that has been identified, Peter Cassell, press officer for the FDA, said in an email.

The investigation is continuing, Cassell said.

With files from the Associated Press

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