According to Oregon public health officials, at least 10 people have become ill with E. coli infections and one has died as a result of eating strawberries contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Six additional people may be part of the outbreak, which has been linked to strawberries produced by Newberg, Oregon-based Jaquith Strawberry Farms and distributed to farmers markets and roadside stands.
According to the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Database, this is the first recorded E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to strawberries and the 19th foodborne illness outbreak related to berries in general since 1990. E. coli O157:H7 is the strain of E. coli made notorious in the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak that sickened hundreds in the Seattle area and is the strain usually associated with U.S. E. coli outbreaks.
“Consumers should always take an extra level of precaution when it comes to washing and preparing their food, especially if consuming it raw,” said William Marler, a Seattle-based food safety attorney who has spent nearly 20 years representing victims of foodborne illness. “Ultimately though, the food should never be placed into the hands of the consumer laced with dangerous pathogens in the first place.”
The outbreak comes as the local food movement is at an all-time high. Last week the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that over 1,000 new farmers markets have been recorded in the past year – a phenomenon the USDA touts as “an excellent indicator of the staying power of local and regional foods.”
Nonetheless, Marler believes consumers have much reason to be cautious when consuming raw food from any source.
“While we often assume that our food will be safer coming from a small source like a farmers market or fruit stand, this is not always the case,” said Marler. “Because smaller farms that sell locally are not subject to the same regulations as larger operations, irrigation water and fertilizers used can be more of a concern for consumers. These things can be paramount to food safety.”