Misti Crane of the Columbus Dispatch reported today that the CDC has identified the "other strain" of E. coli (i.e. not O145) involved in the Freshway romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak. It was E. coli O143:H34. Actually, "involved in the Freshway romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak" may be a little strong, as the Columbus Dispatch was careful to note in its article that nobody was confirmed in the Freshway outbreak with an O143:H34 illness. The O143:H34 strain was recovered from a bag of Freshway lettuce sold in Ohio; a New York bag of Freshway lettuce tested positive for the outbreak strain of E. coli O145.
We have been riding the USDA for a long time to declare other strains of shiga-toxin producing E. coli than O157:H7 as adulterants in the meat supply. Other groups have too. And clearly, the Freshway lettuce outbreak would be Exhibit A in the case for the FDA–which regulates non-meat/poultry foods including lettuce–to do the same thing. Cost–as in, the expenditure required to begin testing for more than just E. coli O157:H7–should not be an issue, either for industry or government. Costs of testing are much more justly borne by industry than personally by people sickened in outbreaks, or state and federal assistance programs on behalf of uninsured people. Further, actually testing for these pathogens, rather than the wait-and-see approach currently taken by industry and government, might actually prevent a few outbreaks from happening, or at least greatly reduce the risks of major outbreaks and injuries, which will ultimately reduce the vast outlays of funds required to respond to these outbreaks.
On the subject of major outbreaks, so now we know that Freshway’s romaine lettuce product was contaminated by two strains of E. coli, both of which are tested for only rarely, if at all. The CDC still says there were 30 victims (23 confirmed in 4 states, and 7 probable). Based on these circumstances, it really isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that this outbreak probably sickened hundreds of people. This means that, even though the outbreaks may have resembled each other more than anybody is willing to admit, there will not be the same public and industry response to Freshway lettuce as there was to Dole baby spinach. But then again, what has the LGMA actually accomplished? Fresh Express lettuce just caused a salmonella outbreak in the Midwest. Freshway lettuce just caused at least 30 confirmed illnesses. And here are 7 other outbreaks that have occurred in this country since the spinach outbreak in 2006, which was the impetus for the LGMA.