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Outbreak of E. Coli Appears Contained

In San Diego and Orange counties, 28 cases are reported. Lettuce source is traced.

October 10, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Health officials said Thursday that they had traced a recent outbreak of E. coli infections to a lettuce-packaging plant in Ventura County but that the original contamination may have occurred elsewhere in the state.

Inspectors "have gone back to the packaging company to find out from what farm they bought [the lettuce]," said Dr. Nancy Bowen, a public health officer for San Diego County, where 22 probable or confirmed cases had been reported as of Thursday. "Hopefully," she said, "we can pin down where the contamination happened."

Orange County officials Thursday reported six confirmed or suspected cases of the disease, caused by a strain of E. coli bacteria and marked by abdominal cramping, bloody diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Though the infection can be fatal in rare cases, officials said, all victims in both counties were said to be recovering.

"It's not a high level of worry for us that there are people out there still eating bad lettuce," Bowen said.

The outbreak first appeared this week, she said, among children who had eaten salads made with a bagged lettuce mix used in two San Diego County school districts -- San Marcos Unified and Alpine Union -- as well as patrons of Pat & Oscar's restaurant outlets in Carlsbad, San Diego, El Cajon, Irvine, Orange and Buena Park.

Investigators later traced the lettuce to an Orange County distributor called Family Tree. And from there, Bowen said, they tracked it back to a packaging company called Gold Coast Produce in Ventura County.

The company should not be confused, Bowen stressed, with one called Gold Coast Packaging, which is not involved in the case.

The good news, officials said Thursday, is that the outbreak appears to be contained.

"All the new cases," Bowen said, "appear to fit the same pattern as the original ones" in that the victims ate salad at one of the identified locations within the same time period: Sept. 30 to Saturday.

Gold Coast, she said, has since recalled all its packaged lettuce products, and Family Tree is no longer distributing them.

"All the products have been pulled," Bowen said, "and all of our latest probable cases have similar dates of onset. It looks like we no longer have the source of the infection out there still making people sick. We hope it's been stemmed."

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