An outbreak of E. coli bacteria linked to romaine lettuce has sickened at least 67 people ― or 27 more people since it was first reported last Friday ― prompting nationwide recalls and warnings from federal health officials ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
The latest figures released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include 49 hospitalizations in 19 states due to the bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal issues and, in certain cases, kidney failure.
Health officials are urging the public not to eat romaine lettuce that has been harvested specifically from Salinas, California, where strains of E. coli O157:H7 are believed to have originated from.
“We are very concerned about the E. coli O157:H7 which is a more viral strain so it actually affects people more,” Peter Cassell, a spokesperson with the Food and Drug Administration, told HuffPost Wednesday.
This same strain was responsible for outbreaks in the U.S. and Canada in the fall of 2017 and 2018, according to the FDA. The current outbreak has largely affected people in Wisconsin, Ohio, California and Maryland.
Consumers are advised to throw away or return any romaine lettuce that is listed as originating from Salinas. If its origin is unknown, including when served at restaurants, it should still be discarded.
It’s too early to say whether the number of E. coli cases are expected to rise or if they have hit their peak, according to Cassell, who described the situation as “a rapidly developing, ongoing investigation.”
But as Americans gather around the table this Thanksgiving, Dr. Michael Ben-Aderet, associate director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, cautioned that the number of foodborne illnesses is likely to rise.
“Foodborne illness is definitely a concern ahead of a national holiday that largely celebrates eating,” he told CNBC. “It’s likely more cases are going to come up.”
Ways the public can better protect themselves from food poisoning include washing hands before, during, and after preparing food, and by avoiding high-risk foods including undercooked ground beef, raw eggs, and foods that use unpasteurized milk, according to FoodSafety.gov.
Unfortunately, romaine lettuce isn’t the only food item that should be on consumers’ radar this Thanksgiving.
For those preparing ground beef, there is a salmonella recall underway for certain products that had been produced and sold in California. This recall specifically applies to ground beef labeled as Stater Bros Ground Beef brand with the establishment number “EST. 6063A,” according to the CDC.
Of the 11 reported salmonella cases linked to this meat, there have been eight hospitalizations and one death, the CDC said.
There’s also a hepatitis A warning for consumers who purchased blackberries in September from the grocery store Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Despite these ongoing concerns, Cassell said food recalls are actually at a nationwide low.
“For the past 18 months we’ve been communicating a lot more about risks relating to food,” he said of the FDA’s public advocacy. Though it may look like there are more recalls because of this, he said “data shows recalls are at a five-year low.”