Montana is the latest state to have confirmed cases of E. coli in a multi-state outbreak linked to chopped romaine lettuce sourced from Yuma, Arizona.
At least three suspected cases of E. coli are being investigated in Flathead County, according to Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson. Suspected and confirmed cases have also been identified in Missoula, Lincoln and Ravalli counties. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified a total of 35 cases, including 22 hospitalizations, in 11 states.
E. coli is a type of intestinal bacteria that can cause infection and severe symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Some people infected with E. coli also present with a low-grade fever below 101 degrees, but most get better within five to seven days. While E. coli is most commonly associated with food poisoning, the bacteria can also result in pneumonia, respiratory problems and urinary tract infections. The illness can start anywhere from one to 10 days following exposure, although most begin to see symptoms three to four days after consuming infected food or drink.
E. coli bacteria can be spread when manure of nearby animals mixes with water that is used to supply fruits or vegetables, such as romaine lettuce.
Restaurants and retailers have been advised not to sell or serve any chopped romaine lettuce and consumers are told to throw away any store-bought lettuce or salad mixes immediately, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
Some local grocers, such as Albertson’s and Safeway, removed bagged salads and deli items containing romaine lettuce from stores, Albertson’s communications and community relations manager Kathy Holland wrote in an email.
“Over the weekend, our team diligently worked with our distribution center to determine product that was sourced from farms in other growing regions not affected by the CDC alert and therefore safe for the consumer,” Holland wrote. “As of today, our stores have begun receiving new shipments of product containing chopped romaine lettuce that is safe for our shoppers.”
Montana epidemiologist Rachel Hinnenkamp said via email that those with symptoms of an E. coli infection should consult with their health care provider, “write down what you ate in the week before you became ill, report your illness to your local health department, and assist public health investigators by answering questions about your illness.”
The Centers for Disease Control recommends purchasing bagged romaine lettuce only if buyers can confirm the produce did not originate in the Yuma area, however, Consumer Reports is taking it one step further and advising customers to avoid all romaine lettuce for the time being.
The Centers for Disease Control reported that the accounted cases transpired between March 22-31, so additional instances of infection could be forthcoming. The majority of E. coli cases — 69 percent — occurred in women, although people of both genders ages 12 to 84 years have been affected by the outbreak.
Montana has experienced two E. coli outbreaks in the past three years, according to Hinnenkamp.
“In 2015, Montana had six cases of [Shiga toxin-producing E. coli] related to a Costco chicken salad multi-state outbreak,” she wrote. “In 2016, there was a STEC outbreak associated with a catered event, with 38 attendees who became ill after the event.”
For more information and updates visit the DPHHS website at http://dphhs.mt.gov.