Four Americans may be ill with the same strain of E. coli bacteria that has killed 18 people in Europe and made 1,800 others sick, U.S. officials said on Friday. But they say that the four almost certainly were infected in Germany.
Three are in the hospital with serious symptoms called hemolytic urinary syndrome, or HUS, which suggests organ damage from the toxins produced by the bacteria. The fourth has bloody diarrhea, a hallmark of the infection. In addition, two members of the U.S. military serving in Germany have symptoms.
"They are separate events but all associated with travel to Northern Germany," Don Kraemer, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told reporters in a conference call.
The FDA said it was checking all shipments of cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce from Germany and Spain for signs of E. coli.
"They won’t be released into U.S. commerce unless and until FDA … finds they are free of E. coli," said David Elder, the FDA's director of regional operations. He said that shipments of all produce from Spain and Germany account for less than two-tenths of 1 percent of U.S. produce imports--cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes account for even less.
It takes about seven days to run a test for E. coli on fresh vegetables, Elder said.
The European strain of E. coli has rarely been seen, but like the more familiar E. coli O157:H7 strain, it produces a type of toxin called Shigella. This produces the hallmark bloody diarrhea that marks a case of E. coli poisoning and also can, in rare cases, damage internal organs.
Authorities in Europe and the United States say they don't yet know the source of the European infection, but cucumbers, tomatoes, and leafy lettuce are suspected. Most of the patients had recently eaten salads or other food with those three vegetables.
"To date, FDA believes that this outbreak has not affected the U.S. food supply. The FDA is constantly vigilant and consistently takes steps to increase monitoring, as appropriate, in situations such as this, to protect the U.S. food supply," the FDA said in a statement.
The FDA's ability to protect the U.S. food supply has, however, been called into question in recent years. President Obama signed a bill giving the FDA more enforcement authority and the ability to increase inspections of food producers.
But some Republicans in Congress have questioned the cost of the $1.4 billion, five-year overhaul and have promised to take a hard look at funding requests.
"The food-safety legislation will have to compete for funding with a litany of other priorities," Fred Love, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, told Reuters in January. Latham sits on the Appropriations subcommittee that deals with the FDA.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly one in six Americans (48 million people) get sick; 128,000 are hospitalized; and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases annually.
E. coli is most commonly found in meat and dairy products, because it lives in the intestines of animals naturally. But since 2006, the U.S. food supply has been battered by high-profile outbreaks involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts, and spinach.
Want the news first every morning? Sign up for National Journal’s Need-to-Know Memo. Short items to prepare you for the day.
DON'T MISS TODAY'S TOP STORIES