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E. coli source traced; threat over

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2012 - Romaine lettuce that probably was tainted before it reached a local supermarket chain was the likely source of the E. coli outbreak that sickened 37 people in Missouri in October and November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Wednesday.

The supermarket is thought to have been Schnucks. In the CDC report, it is identified only as "grocery store Chain A." The agency said 60 people in 10 states eventually were infected. A CDC spokeswoman had no immediate information on which company supplied the lettuce.

Of the 37 cases in Missouri, 27 were in St. Louis County, three in St. Louis city, two each in St. Charles, Jefferson and Boone counties, and one in Christian County, according to Jacqueline Lapine, spokewoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Because the outbreak appeared to have ended, the CDC said consumers were not being advised to avoid eating any specific foods. Soon after St. Louis area residents were sickened by what turned out to be E. coli O157:H7, public health officials began focusing on salad bars at some Schnucks stores. That was because many, but not all, of the victims reported eating food from salad bars at various Schnucks locations.

The CDC conducted an epidemiologic study that compared food eaten by 22 ill persons with 82 well persons, including 45 well persons who shopped at grocery store Chain A during the week of Oct. 17, the report said. It said an analysis of the study indicated that eating romaine lettuce was associated with the illness.

"A total of 9 locations of grocery store Chain A were identified where more than one ill person reported purchasing a salad from the salad bar in the week before becoming ill," the CDC said. It added that the lettuce served at the salad bars at all the stores had come from a single lettuce processing facility through a single distributor.

"This indicates that contamination of romaine lettuce likely occurred before the product reached grocery store Chain A locations," the report said.

In addition to the 37 reported cases in Missouri, there were nine in Illinois, three each in Kansas and Minnesota, two each in Arkansas and Indiana, and one each in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky and Nebraska.

The CDC said the victims ranged in age from 1 to 94 years, with a median age of 29. Sixty-three percent were female. There were no deaths, but the report said 30 of the victims were hospitalized. These included two who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a disorder in which red blood cells are destroyed and kidney failure occurs.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.