1. Stubenrauch, James M.

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Last December, soon after the outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 that was traced to contaminated spinach, another outbreak occurred, this time in the Northeast. Seventy-one people in five states-most in New York and New Jersey-were confirmed to have gotten ill after eating at Taco Bell fast-food restaurants, but as many as 400 other cases may be part of the same outbreak and are under investigation.1, 2 Among the confirmed cases, 53 (75%) were hospitalized and 8 (11%) developed hemolytic uremic syndrome.1


The way the outbreak and its investigation unfolded highlights the difficulty of tracing contamination to its source. Initial tests seemed to indicate that green onions were the culprit, but more sophisticated tests used to confirm the analysis failed to find O157:H7 in the green onions.3 After two weeks of investigation, shredded iceberg lettuce emerged as the ingredient most likely to have been contaminated, but according to the New York Times, "the new conclusion was not based on testing of food samples, which so far have been negative for E. coli."3 Rather, "investigators surveyed what stricken people ate and compared that with what their dining companions who remained healthy had eaten."3 By a process of elimination, they narrowed down the possibilities to shredded lettuce. Other suspected ingredients had been ground beef and cheddar cheese. As we went to press, the investigation was continuing.


Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are working to raise awareness of the need to better protect our food supply as well as the enormous potential for contamination that results from the intensive "factory farming" of animals practiced in the United States. (See Yet food industry lobbyists constantly pressure Congress to weaken food safety regulations, undermining the efforts of public health advocates. For example, in 2006 Congress considered a deceptively named bill, the National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005 (HR 4167), that would have cut already inadequate federal agricultural safeguards.

Figure. A single Gra... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. A single Gram-negative

In contrast, the Safe Food Act of 2005 (S 729; HR 1507), sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), would establish a single federal agency responsible for food safety, giving Washington greater regulatory and enforcement authority over food producers, processors, and distributors. This bill is generally opposed by the food industry.


James M. Stubenrauch


senior editor




1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E.coli: update on the current East Coast outbreak. The Centers. 2006 Dec 14. [Context Link]


2. Martin A. With onions no longer the top suspect, the search for E. coli resumes. New York Times 2006, Dec 13. [Context Link]


3. Lambert B. Shredded lettuce is now chief suspect in E. coli outbreak. New York Times 2006, Dec 14. [Context Link]