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Tainted lettuce sickens 19, leads to recall and increased pressure on lawmakers

May 7, 2010 | 12:55 pm

At least 19 people have fallen ill due to tainted romaine lettuce in 23 states and Washington, D.C. -- a foodborne outbreak that has prompted a massive recall from a large swath of the country.

Three of the people sickened were reported to have life-threatening symptoms and 12 others were hospitalized because of lettuce believed to be tainted with E. coli, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that they are investigating an additional 10 cases they believe may be linked to the outbreak.

Freshway Foods, a fresh-produce distributor in Sidney, Ohio, said it was voluntarily recalling romaine lettuce it sold in 23 states because of a possible link to Escherichia coli O145 bacteria (E. coli O145). The products were sold under the Freshway brand and Imperial Sysco brand, the company said in a statement.

Associated Press has reported that the FDA is targeting lettuce growers in Arizona as a potential source for the contamination outbreak. FDA officials could not be reached for comment Friday morning.

The outbreak added fuel to criticism over why new food safety legislation -- which has bipartisan support -- has stalled in Congress. The Senate bill, S 510, is pending; the bill in the House, HR 2749, passed overwhelmingly last summer.

The legislation would require the FDA to step up inspections of food facilities and issue new rules to improve the quality of imported food and combat contaminants in fresh produce. The measure also would give the agency authority to recall products on its own, instead of relying on industry cooperation.

The bills came about last year after a string of high-profile recalls and deaths related to tainted foods, including peanuts and spinach, in an effort to improve the oversight of the food sector and combat containments of fresh produce. A House subcommittee heard testimony this week on research from a pair of government reports on the issue, which found that the FDA only annually inspects one out of four U.S. food facilities.

“The longer the Senate takes to take up this leg, the more outbreaks we’re going to be seeing,” said Sandra Eskin, director of The Pew Charitable Trust's food safety campaign. “If you had produce safety standards, they would address to all the different sources of potential contamination, from the water used to irrigate fields to workers who don’t have proper hand-washing or toilet facilities.”

Some smaller growers, in California and other states, have argued against the bills, saying they would institute costly new regulations.

Freshway Foods said the lettuce was sold to wholesalers and supermarket chains in states east of the Mississippi river: Alabama, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The bagged products being recalled, which include salad packages sold at Kroger and Giant Eagle grocery chains, have a “best if used by” date of May 12 or earlier.

Those who have gotten ill include college students in Michigan, Ohio and New York. There are no reports so far of illness or distribution of the tainted lettuce in California.

-- P.J. Huffstutter