Editor's Note: On Jan. 26, the CDC said the outbreak "appears to be over," because no illnesses have been reported in more than six weeks and the likely culprit -- leafy greens -- has a shorter shelf life. That means consumers are likely no longer at risk, although the agency was never able to pinpoint the source of the outbreak.
On Jan. 10, the CDC said leafy greens are a possible source of the outbreak but the agency had not identified a particular type. Because of their short shelf life, they said it was likely any affected produce would no longer be for sale. Seven additional people have been diagnosed with E coli related to the outbreak.
Jan. 3, 2018 -- A deadly strain of E. coli bacteria has sickened 17 people in the United States and 41 in Canada. Two people -- one in the U.S. and one in Canada -- have died from their infections.
The bacteria produce shiga toxin, a potent biological poison, which blocks cells from making proteins. Infections with shiga-producing E. coli can be life-threatening, especially for young children, the elderly, and people with medical conditions like diabetes.
Early tests show that the bacteria making people sick in both countries is genetically related, meaning it’s more likely to be coming from a common source, according to the CDC.
The CDC says it is still trying to track down the source of the outbreak, but in Canada, health officials have linked the infections to a common food: romaine lettuce.
Because there still appears to be a risk of infection, the Public Health Agency of Canada says consumers in affected provinces should consider eating other types of lettuce until they have more information, such as where the lettuce came from and where it was sold.
In a Dec. 28 news release, the CDC declined to offer any specific advice, saying that because it hasn't found a source of the infections, it can't say whether U.S. residents avoid any particular food. The agency says state and local health officials are interviewing those who have gotten sick to find out if there is a common source of the bacteria.
“It’s really unfortunate that they don’t feel they have a firm enough link to advise consumers not to eat this product,” says Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group that calls for greater transparency in food safety investigations and food recalls.
Sorscher says federal agencies have gotten it wrong before. In 2008, the FDA and CDC first flagged tomatoes as the source of a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,400 people in 43 states. It turned out that the outbreak was largely from jalapeno and serrano peppers.
The well-intentioned but incorrect warning cost tomato growers and restaurants millions of dollars and confused consumers.
“They don’t want to make the wrong call,” Sorscher says. “For consumers, this is something that can kill children. As a mom, when I read the current CDC notice, I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to buy romaine lettuce for a couple of weeks, because the risk of being wrong as a consumer is very high.”
In the U.S., infections have been reported in 13 states: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington. Illnesses began between Nov. 15 and Dec. 8.
Symptoms of E. coli infections typically begin from 1 to 10 days after contact with the bacteria. They include:
- Mild fever
- Severe stomach cramps
- Watery or bloody diarrhea