On the same day that congressional investigators cited shoddy oversight of produce processing operations, wholesale, bagged iceberg lettuce appears to be the culprit in the Michigan E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that has sickened at least 26 people.
“Some of the 26 Michigan cases consumed shredded or chopped iceberg lettuce in restaurants or institutions purchased from Aunt Mid’s Produce Company, a Detroit-based wholesale distributor; and other distributing outlets could be identified. Product trace back and additional tests results are still in progress.
“Our top priority at the Michigan Department of Community Health is to protect the public,” said Dr. Gregory Holzman, chief medical executive for MDCH. “We appreciate all of the assistance from Aunt Mid’s. They have been very helpful in this investigation. We want to ensure that the public’s health and well-being is protected. Even though the investigation is ongoing, available evidence is strongly pointing to iceberg lettuce.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if just one public health official in Canada had a similar statement – our top priority is to protect public health – during the listeria outbreak that has killed at least 18?
Although I do have some concerns about statements from Michigan State University physician Beth Alexander, who tonight said,
“We will continue to be as cautious as possible, until this issue is completely resolved.”
This is the same MSU physician Beth Alexander who said on Sept 16, 2008,
“Generally, the infection isn’t serious. It’s usually caused by food or water that has been contaminated with that bacteria.”
The eight MSU students who were hospitalized probably thought it was serious.
Further, a press release from MSU tonight said,
“The one food item typically associated with E. coli outbreaks is undercooked hamburger. Health officials advise all chefs to cook their hamburgers until the juice runs clear.”
I’m not sure what that has to do with lettuce. And color is a lousy indicator for judging whether meat is done or not – a digital, tip-sensitive thermometer is a must. Cooking until the juices run clear seems reckless rather than cautious.
Alexander also stressed that thorough hand washing remains the most effective way of fighting communicable diseases, and,
“Always wash your hands before preparing any foods. Make sure your countertops are clean and don’t do any food preparation if you are sick.”
Again, I’m not sure what this has to do with lettuce. Doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the ability of MSU food service to provide safe food – no matter how much Spartan spirit they have. Maybe MSU should be examining their food procurement policies. If this is what a top-10 land grant university produces, maybe those rankings don’t mean too much.
A table of at least 28 previous North American outbreaks of shiga-toxin producing E. coli, like O157:H7, is available at: