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Romaine lettuce outbreak is traced to at least one California farm

Romaine lettuce outbreak is traced to at least one California farm
Romaine lettuce sits on a refrigerated shelf at a Simi Valley grocery store in November. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

U.S. health officials have traced a food poisoning outbreak from romaine lettuce to at least one farm in California.

But they cautioned Thursday that other farms are likely involved in the E. coli outbreak and consumers should continue checking the label before buying romaine lettuce.

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The government also narrowed the source of the outbreak to three California counties: Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Benito. That's down from six California counties under investigation when regulators began warning the public last month.

The Food and Drug Administration said 59 people in 15 states have now been sickened by the tainted lettuce. That's seven more cases than previously reported, but regulators said they are fairly confident that the lettuce that first triggered the outbreak has been removed from the market. The FDA told consumers to avoid romaine lettuce just before Thanksgiving.

Officials said a water reservoir at Adams Bros. Farms in Santa Barbara County tested positive for the bacterial strain and the owners are cooperating with U.S. officials. Officials from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not determined how the water reservoir — which is used to irrigate lettuce — became contaminated.

The bacteria can get into water and soil through multiple routes, including waste from domesticated or wild animals, fertilizer and other agricultural products.

Regulators said people should buy lettuce only if it has a label listing where and when it was harvested. Lettuce that is not from Santa Barbara, Monterey or San Benito counties and that was harvested after Nov. 23 should be safe to eat.

Romaine harvesting recently began shifting from California's Central Coast to winter growing areas, primarily Arizona, Florida, Mexico and California's Imperial Valley. Those winter regions weren't yet shipping when the illnesses began.

E. coli, the bacteria often associated with food poisoning, usually causes sickness two to eight days later, according to health authorities. Most people with the infection get diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Some cases can be life-threatening, causing kidney failure and seizures.

The FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff said investigators have linked the tainted lettuce to multiple distributors and processors, suggesting it must have come from several farms.

A man who answered the phone at Adams Bros. Farms said he could not comment on the government announcement. According to the company's website, it grows only vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, celery and lettuces.

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