E. coli probe’s focus turns to KFC lettuce

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An outbreak of E. coli-related illnesses that has sickened 26 people since Dec. 22 across three provinces has led investigators to focus on California-grown lettuce used at KFC restaurants.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said Friday its investigation shows the "most probable cause" of six E. coli O157:H7 illnesses in New Brunswick, and 10 each in Ontario and Nova Scotia, to be shredded lettuce distributed by FreshPoint Inc., headed "primarily" to some KFC and KFC-Taco Bell restaurants.

"We’re obviously concerned, as this lettuce provided to us by FreshPoint has been distributed to many area restaurants in Canada, including ours," Yum! Restaurants Canada CEO Sabir Sami said in a brief statement on KFC’s Canadian website.

"We have removed all the affected lettuce from our restaurants in Canada and want to reassure our customers that our food is perfectly safe to eat."

FreshPoint, a U.S. produce distributor and subsidiary of Houston-based foodservice distribution giant Sysco, is working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to recall any remaining affected product from the restaurants, PHAC said, noting the lettuce products weren’t distributed to grocery stores.

A recall by now would be mainly precautionary, said Dr. Frank Atherton, Nova Scotia’s deputy chief medical officer of health.

"Lettuce has a limited shelf life, and we have not seen a new case in more than a week," he said in a separate release Friday. "This tells us it is highly unlikely the food item remains in the food chain."

CFIA has traced the lettuce to its origin in California and has notified U.S. authorities of this finding, PHAC said, but noted it’s not yet known how the lettuce would have been contaminated with the bacteria.

Nova Scotia’s agriculture department noted Friday it had inspected "impacted locations" and found that "no food safety issues related to the outbreak have been identified in these restaurants."

No one has died from O157:H7 infection in this outbreak, although 11 of the 26 confirmed cases connected to this specific strain were hospitalized, and one of the cases developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a kidney-damaging symptom of severe O157:H7 infection.

The 26 people affected range in age from two to 83 years old. The onset dates for most of the cases ran from Dec. 23 and 26.

Most strains of E. coli are harmless but some, such as O157:H7, can cause illness with severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. About five to 10 per cent of those who are sickened by O157:H7, and about 15 per cent of young children and older seniors, develop HUS.

Related story:
Eastern E. coli cases connected, but not yet to food, Jan. 9, 2013