A California company has recalled more than 90 tons of prepackaged salads and sandwich wraps because they may be contaminated with a toxin-producing strain of E. coli, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
Glass Onion Catering in Richmond, Calif., is recalling ready-to-eat salads and wraps with cooked chicken and ham that may contain E. coli O157:H7, the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service said. The products have been linked to 26 ill patients in three states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, most of them in California.
A full list of recalled products, some packaged under the name Atherstone Fine Foods, is available on the Food and Drug Administration's website.
The products were produced between Sept. 23 and Nov. 6 and shipped to Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington, the USDA said. The FDA site says the products involved were sold by Whole Foods and Walgreens in Northern California and Trader Joe's in Northern California and Northern Nevada.
The USDA was notified by the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday that California authorities had reported issues illnesses linked to prepackaged salads with grilled chicken.
It is unusual to find E. coli O157:H7 in chicken, the USDA said.
Trevor Suslow, a food safety expert at the University of California, Davis, agrees.
"There have been some rare isolations of O157 reported, but I am not aware of outbreaks," he says. Rather than chicken, he says it is more likely that the contaminant is some ingredients common to the salads.
E. coli O157:H7 can cause diarrhea, often bloody, and abdominal cramps. While most people recover within a week, in some cases it can cause a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is very dangerous. In this outbreak, at least six people were hospitalized and two developed the syndrome, CDC said. No deaths have been reported.
Such outbreaks seem to occur more often with packaged products than whole raw vegetables for several reasons, says Suslow, whose research focuses on improving the safety and quality of fresh vegetables. They can include:
• Larger processing centers can allow a small amount of contaminated food to end up in a large number of ready-to-eat products. One contaminated field of lettuce might be sold as 1,000 heads of lettuce at a few supermarkets. That same lettuce could be sold to a ready-to-eat sandwich maker, shredded and end up in 10,000 sandwiches distributed over a much larger area.
• The packaging used for many ready-to-eat salads, because it retains humidity, can make it easier for a small amount of bacteria to grow into a large amount, especially if the product is not kept properly cool.
• Ready-to-eat food producers tend to buy large amounts of vegetables and then process them in a central location for distribution. So a small amount of an infected product, when washed in a larger batch, can cross-contaminate the entire tub of vegetables if the wash water is not properly treated to prevent contamination.