The spring breakout of E. coli was previously traced to Yuma, Arizona, but Thursday officials got more specific about the source. Two hundred people got sick and five died in the recent outbreak — two in Minnesota and one each in Arkansas, California, and New York. The Weather Channel reports that of the 200 who became ill, 27 were individuals who developed kidney failure. The outbreak has been declared officially over, and after an assessment of soil, water, and manure in the Yuma area, the Food and Drug Administration has now announced that they found an irrigation canal in Yuma that is infected with the bacteria. That canal is likely the origin of the nationwide outbreak.
Investigators have not yet identified how the E. coli bacteria made its way into the water and are still trying to determine whether other water sources may have been infected, but the Federal Department of Agriculture says that the last shipments of infected romaine lettuce went out on April 16. Fox 8 reports that they also said they won’t reveal the location of the canal that has been identified until they have finished composing a report on the matter. They say they are “continuing to investigate the outbreak to learn more about how the E. coli bacteria could have entered the water and ways this water could have contaminated romaine lettuce.” Officials had previously traced a breakout at an Alaskan prison to heads of romaine lettuce grown at Harrison Farms in Yuma, but they were unable to pinpoint one farm or site used for distribution or packaging as the culprit for other cases.
The latest E. coli outbreak that spanned 36 states and lasted throughout the spring was the largest in over 10 years. The highest number of reported illnesses was in March and April of this year, but some are still trickling in, with one even reported in June. Prior to this year, the largest outbreak was in 2006. E. coli was traced to California spinach then. It’s suspected that wild pigs carried water from streams infected by cattle back to spinach fields. E. coli outbreaks are usually traced to beef, so it’s likely this one will be traced to cattle somewhere upstream of the irrigation.
Escheria coli is actually a collection of bacteria found in “the environment, foods and intestines of people and animals.” Most varieties are not harmful. Only a few can cause diarrhea, severe infections like pneumonia, or death.