Wendy’s likely source of multistate E. coli outbreak, CDC says

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Most patients with E. coli in a recent Midwest outbreak ate at a Wendy’s restaurant the week before symptoms began, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

Although the CDC has not conclusively identified the fast-food chain as the source of the infections, most of those sickened reported eating sandwiches garnished with romaine lettuce. The chain’s restaurants in the region have stopped using the lettuce in sandwiches as a precautionary measure, the Columbus-based company said in a statement.

“While the CDC has not yet confirmed a specific food as the source of this outbreak, we are taking precautions to remove sandwich lettuce from restaurants in that region,” the statement said. “The lettuce that we use in our salads is different and is not affected by this action. As a company, we are committed to maintaining our high standards of food safety and quality.”

At least 65 people have gotten sick in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania, including 10 who were hospitalized, according to the CDC and Michigan authorities. No one is known to have died.

CDC reports ‘rapid’ E. coli outbreak in Michigan and Ohio

The CDC said Friday that it’s not recommending that people avoid eating at Wendy’s restaurants or stop eating romaine lettuce. At this time, the agency said, there is no evidence to indicate that romaine lettuce sold in supermarkets, served in other restaurants, or in people’s homes is linked to this outbreak.

Several high-profile E. coli outbreaks have been linked to romaine lettuce. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which was enacted in 2011, required farmers to test irrigation water, which can be contaminated with feces and bacteria. But the FDA has delayed its implementation.

“E. Coli outbreaks associated with lettuce, specifically the ‘pre-washed’ and ‘ready-to-eat’ varieties, are by no means a new phenomenon,” said Bill Marler, an attorney who specializes in foodborne illness cases. “In fact, the frequency with which the fresh-producing public in this country has been affected by outbreaks of pathogenic bacteria is staggering.”

What to know about E. coli symptoms and how to prevent infection

The outbreak joins several other high-profile incidents of allegedly contaminated food this year. The FDA and CDC investigated a multistate outbreak of salmonella infections linked to certain Jif-brand peanut butter products produced at a facility in Lexington, Kentucky, leading to many recalls. Abbott Nutrition recalled 5 million units of infant formula after at least four babies fell ill, two of whom died. A listeria outbreak linked to Big Olaf Creamery in Sarasota, Fla., led to ice cream recalls in many states, with organic strawberries source of an outbreak of hepatitis A this spring.

The source of recent E. coli cases has been slow to emerge, as state and local public health officials have interviewed people about the food they ate in the week before they got sick.

The CDC is trying to determine the full extent of the outbreak, which agency officials say could extend beyond the four known states. Public health researchers are using the PulseNet system, a national database of DNA fingerprinting of bacteria that cause foodborne illness, to identify illnesses that may be part of this outbreak.

The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick each year in the United States, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illness.

Foodborne illnesses result in $3 billion in health care costs. Nearly half of illnesses come from agricultural products, according to the CDC. Then, in descending order, there is meat and poultry; dairy and eggs; and fish and shellfish.

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