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DeLauro pushes CDC director for answers on E. coli outbreak

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A “stunning lack of guidance” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is how Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) described the Trump administration’s handling of the current E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, which Canada linked to romaine lettuce on Dec. 11.

Canada and the U.S. reported 58 infections, 22 hospitalizations and two deaths from the current outbreak, but only Canada has warned their consumers of a possible food vehicle – romaine lettuce.

In a Jan. 8 letter to CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, DeLauro didn’t mince words: “CDC’s stunning lack of guidance to consumers regarding this outbreak is unconscionable.”

She said American consumers “deserve more than this slow and insufficient response” and that families are “now left wondering if the food they are eating is safe.” CDC should conduct the investigation while providing timely public information, she recommended.

Canadian health authorities first identified the lettuce link on Dec. 11, then updated its warnings two additional times.

“There appears to be an ongoing risk of E. coli infections associated with the consumption of romaine lettuce in Canada’s eastern provinces,” Canada said on Dec. 28.

On the same day, CDC announced the E. coli strains appeared related but would not identify a source of the infections. “Preliminary results show that the type of E. coli making people sick in both countries is closely related genetically, meaning the ill people are more likely to share a common source of infection.”

But U.S. health authorities have said it’s too early to blame leafy greens as the probe continues.

This does not sit well with DeLauro who asked Fitzgerald a series of questions, such as when the first E. coli infection was reported in the U.S., when CDC began investigating the outbreak, and what is “CDC’s justification for waiting almost a month and a half before publicly confirming the outbreak?”

In her letter, the Democrat asked CDC to clarify the coordination between Canada and the U.S. health authorities on the outbreak, and report any information CDC may have on “implicated suppliers, distributors or retailers.”

While FDA has been largely silent about the outbreak while the investigation continues, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted about the outbreak this week.

He said the illness onsets “occurred in late Nov & early Dec, so the source of these cases likely is no longer on the market. We’re working closely with partners to identify that source,” Gottlieb said.

Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, said it’s unclear what steps FDA and CDC are taking in the wake of one of the most serious outbreaks that has occurred in the Trump administration. She said it’s still unclear whether FDA is intensifying testing of U.S. and imported products in the wake of Canada’s findings.

And some companies are not waiting to act. The largest foodservice company, Compass Group, has already suspended using romaine lettuce in all operations until CDC provides more information, Halloran said.

Produce trade organizations issued a statement that, as of last week, no public health agency had contacted romaine lettuce growers or processors and asked to stop shipping product.

Even if the outbreak was caused by lettuce, it’s unlikely the perishable product would still be available for sale or in a home refrigerator as the last illness onset date was reported to be Dec. 8, the groups said. 

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