TUESDAY, Oct. 10, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The California lettuce that was recalled Sunday is not contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria, company officials said Tuesday.
Instead, independent lab tests found only the harmless variety of the bacteria, and not the life-threatening O157:H7 strain found recently in fresh spinach packages.
"At the time we ordered the recall, we only had an indication that there might be the potential that people could become sick," Nunes Co. President Tom Nunes said in a statement on the company's Web site. "We thought it better to be safe, and protect the health of our consumers. On Sunday, we pulled Green Leaf and water samples. We had all of the samples tested for E. coli 0157:H7. We are relieved that all results were negative, and we are confident our product is safe."
The company did note that U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials collected separate water samples for testing; those results should be available late Wednesday or early Thursday.
"There are many, many different kinds of E. coli. Some are harmful to humans and some are not," Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told reporters Monday night. "At this stage, we don't know if the E. coli in the irrigation water contains harmful E. coli. All we know is that members of E. coli were found."
There have so far been no reported cases of human illness linked to the recalled "Foxy" green leaf lettuce packages, which are distributed nationwide but were only recalled in seven Western states, the FDA added.
The recall affected all products stamped with lot code 6SL0024 and distributed between Oct. 3 and Oct. 6 in Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. And industry officials said most cartons of the suspect lettuce have already been located and destroyed.
According to Paul Simonds, a spokesman for the Western Growers Association, 97 percent of 8,100 lettuce packages that had been recalled were accounted for as of Monday morning.
The Associated Press reported that the remaining 250 cartons could be in any of the affected states.
The lettuce was grown on a single farm in the Salinas Valley, the same agricultural region implicated in the spinach E. coli outbreak that affected 26 states.
As of Oct. 6, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the tainted spinach outbreak has sickened 199 people and caused three deaths, with another death under investigation. The deadly strain of E. coli was found in spinach packaged by Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif.
FDA officials reiterated that there was no link between the two incidents.
"As far as we're aware, there is nothing whatsoever to connect the current recall with previous spinach outbreak," Acheson said.
But he did not rule out the possibility that something environmental in the Salinas Valley may be responsible for the large number of recent E. coli outbreaks.
"The number of outbreaks traced back to the central California region raises that question, but at this point we don't have a specific answer," he said.
The contaminated lettuce water originally came from a deep well but was then stored in a reservoir before being pumped into an irrigation system. It's unclear whether the current problem is linked with the well, the reservoir or something else, Acheson said.
Officials are operating under the premise that only one farm was watered from the reservoir. "As far as we know, no more than one farm was involved," Acheson said. "That's why we could narrow it down to specific lots and dates."
To help safeguard themselves and their families, consumers should get vegetables and other perishable goods home from the store within a reasonable period of time, keep them refrigerated once home and avoid cross-contamination, Acheson said.
"This has been sort of a wake-up call to people who've gotten lax with home food safety," said Sheah Rarback, a registered dietician with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "So if there's anything positive out of this, it's really that people can understand washing and cleaning can make a difference."
Always wash lettuce thoroughly, added Arun Bhunia, a professor of food microbiology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "It may not take care of E. coli, but it would reduce the number of bacteria," he added.
Also, remember to wash your hands before handling food, Rarback said.
Leafy greens weren't the only recent source of E. coli concerns.
On Friday, the government announced that an Iowa company was recalling about 5,200 pounds of ground beef products distributed in seven states because they could be contaminated with the gut bug.
Jim's Market and Locker Inc. of Harlan produced the ground beef patties and packages Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, and sent them to distributors in Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Texas and Wisconsin, and to one retail establishment in Iowa, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service said, according to an AP report.
Visit the FDA for more on its recent Lettuce Safety Initiative.