E. coli in Michigan
lettuce traced to California
Article Launched: 10/10/2008 07:56:36 AM PDT
Source of Article: http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_10687830
An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in
tainted iceberg lettuce that sickened 36 people in Michigan
last month has been traced back to California
agriculture officials had previously named the supplier of the lettuce as
Aunt Mid's Produce of Detroit but had not
identified where the lettuce was grown.
The outbreak, involving bagged, industrial-sized packages of iceberg
lettuce sold through wholesale venues to restaurants and institutions,
sickened students at Michigan State University
and the University of Michigan, and inmates at Lenawee County Jail before
spreading to metro Detroit.
The Detroit Free Press reported late Thursday that Michigan agriculture officials had
confirmed the state of origin, although a region wasn't specified.
Several questions remain to be answered, including in which part of California the lettuce
Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said
September is peak season for Salinas
Valley lettuce growers.
"That's when our growers are very busy," said Perkins. "If it's California
bagged lettuce, there's a real probability that it will be tied to our area,
or to somebody that we know."
Even if it turns out that the lettuce was grown outside the Salinas Valley, he expects the implications
could weigh heavily on a leafy green industry still reeling from the 2006 E.
coli outbreak in spinach that sickened more than 200 and left three people
Consumers from California may be familiar
enough with the state's geography to differentiate the San
Joaquin Valley or
Imperial Valley from Salinas
Valley, but Perkins
thinks that's not likely the case for someone living outside the state.
"For anybody outside of California,"
he said, "what they're going to remember is California."
As of late Thursday, the news that California
had been identified hadn't yet traveled through the local industry.
Perkins said the other big question will be whether health officials will
be able to suggest a possible cause for how the bacteria
"Everybody's going to want to know as much as possible about the
potential causes, because everybody is doing pretty much everything they can
to prevent outbreaks," he said.
For consumers reading about food safety outbreaks, he suspects it's hard
to know what choices to make. And confusion doesn't help the industry sell
its product, he said.
"Just talking about California
certainly affects consumer confidence," he said.
Likewise, Dennis Donohue, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of
the Central Coast,
said the determination that California
is the source of the lettuce is only one part of a complete picture.
"How was the product handled by the processor? How was the product
handled by the product's consumers? How was it consumed?" he said.
As a founding member of the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing
Agreement, Donohue said he was proud of the efforts grower-shippers have made
to ensure food safety.
"Obviously we would hope that the source would not be identified with
that membership," he said. "But no one has ever said it would be a
But wherever in California
the lettuce turns out to have been grown, Donohue said, it will have some
impact on consumer trust.
"Consumers, in terms of confidence levels, they tend not to split
hairs. So the strongest link is affected by the weakest link," said
Donohue. "This is an issue that has affected our industry, if nothing
else, in costs and practices, and we're going to have to be eternally
Aunt Mid's Produce of Detroit was identified as
one of the Michigan
suppliers. The company immediately stopped its lettuce distribution, said
Chief Executive Officer Philip Riggio, and had its
supply and processing facilities tested by outside experts. The tests found
no evidence of contamination.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture also tested Aunt Mid's lettuce, with no findings of E. coli, said Jennifer
Holton, MDA spokeswoman.
Holton said Aunt Mid's will be able to resume
operations soon and the investigation is ongoing in cooperation with California food and
The Detroit Free Press
contributed to this report.