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    Lettuce Linked to E. coli Outbreak in Michigan

    The latest produce outbreak surfaced on the same day a government report fingered FDA's own food safety challenges due to staffing shortages, infrequent inspections, and lax enforcement at processing plants.

    The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) issued a public health alert Friday after two dozen cases of E. coli surfaced during the month. State health officials have linked the outbreak, which has been reported to have sickened at least 26 people in Michigan, to iceberg lettuce sold by wholesale distributor Aunt Mid's Produce Co. to restaurants and institutions.

    While symptoms of the confirmed genetically linked E. coli patients began on Sept. 8, there is no evidence that the bagged lettuce at grocery stores is affected, officials said.

    At presstime, only bagged, industrial-sized packages of iceberg lettuce sold through the Detroit-based distributor to restaurants and institutions were being linked to the outbreak. Health officials said other distribution outlets could also be identified pending further results of tracebacks and additional tests, which were still in progress over the weekend.

    The 26 genetically linked cases turned up in eight Michigan counties. Seven of the cases were at Michigan State University (Ingham County); five invcolved inmates at the Lenawee County Jail; three were students at the University of Michigan (Washtenaw County); four appeared in Macomb County; three in Wayne country; two in Kent county; and one each in St. Clair and Oakland counties.

    Of the E. coli O157:H7 cases that are genetically linked, 10 people ranging in age from 11- to 81-years-old have been hospitalized.

    The news of the latest produce incident broke on the same day that a government report was in the news, having outlined the Food and Drug Administration's problems in keeping up with its food safety enforcement mandates.

    The report, by Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators, said the FDA's efforts to combat food-borne illness are hampered by staffing shortages, infrequent inspections, and lax enforcement at fresh produce processing plants.

    The GAO report also said only 1 percent of produce imported into the U.S. is inspected, and the practice of mixing produce from several sources makes tracing contamination incidents to their source challenging.

    The draft findings released Friday outraged Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was among the lawmakers that had called for the investigation in the wake of the 2006 E. coli/bagged spinach outbreak.

    "This report paints a frightening picture of the FDA's fresh produce safety efforts," said Boxer, adding that it "should serve as a wake up call to do more to protect the nation's food supply."

    But a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official said Friday that the nation's fresh produce would be safer if U.S. farmers were required to adopt strict standards for growing leafy greens similar to industry-written ones devised for California growers.

    Dr. David Acheson said the FDA would need authority from Congress to enact "preventative controls" over production of the nation's fresh produce like those it has in place for seafood and fresh juice. "Having Congress give us explicit authority makes it a much more robust approach and gives more chance of success," Acheson was quoted as saying in press reports.

    Acheson said at least two of the GAO's recommendations - including giving the agency enhanced access to food records during emergencies and working more closely with states' departments of food and agriculture -- are included in the FDA's forthcoming Food Protection Plan that's been in the works nearly a year. FDA will soon begin awarding grants to states to further food and feed safety, the agency's associate commissioner for food protection said, adding that it is "one of the many steps we are taking to transform food protection."

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