A member of Congress says the CDC’s response to a deadly and ongoing E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce is deeply alarming and endangering the public.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, fired off a scathing letter Monday to Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DeLauro, who has routinely championed food safety initiatives, slammed the CDC’s apparent lack of action and failure to provide pertinent information to the public. She said the CDC’s performance so far is too little, too late and too dangerous.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT

First revealed by Canadian officials on Dec. 11, a total of 58 people in Canada and the U.S. have been confirmed with E. coli O157:H7 infections. Two have died. Canadian officials warned Dec. 14 that people should avoid eating romaine lettuce until further notice because it is the likely source of the bacteria.

In the United States, the CDC waited until Dec. 28 to go public about the outbreak, which it reported in a news release had been ongoing since at least Nov. 15. The CDC mentioned Canadian officials had identified romaine lettuce, but said U.S. officials were not sure.

“Because we have not identified a source of the infections, CDC is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food. This investigation is ongoing, and more information will be released as it becomes available,” according to the Dec. 28 news release from the CDC.

The CDC has not posted any other public information about the outbreak. Whole genome sequencing has shown victims in both countries are infected with the same strain, which suggests a common food source.

“CDC’s stunning lack of guidance to consumers regarding this outbreak is unconscionable,” Rep. DeLauro said in her letter to CDC Director Fitzgerald. “… CDC failed to provide consumers with warnings or updated information on how to best protect their own health.

“Just as concerning, the investigation appears to have gone ‘cold,’ with the agency’s own staff seemingly content with ending the investigation without ever finding the cause and source.”

As of Monday, staff at the CDC were unable to provide Food Safety News with much information regarding the outbreak investigation. A spokeswoman said the CDC has not received any food items for testing, but that local and state agencies frequently conduct such tests during investigations.

Other information cannot be released because the investigation is ongoing. Whether the outbreak is over is also a question looming over the agency.

“In the U.S. outbreak, although the most recent illness started on Dec. 8, it is too early to say whether the outbreak is over,” the CDC spokeswoman told Food Safety News on Monday.

“There is a delay between when someone gets sick and when the illness is reported to CDC. For E. coli infections, this reporting delay can be two to three weeks. Holidays can increase this delay so more time may be needed before an outbreak is declared over when illnesses occur around holidays.

“Officials also assess whether the food item linked to illness is no longer available for purchase, which would indicate the immediate risk to consumers is over. When the food item has not been identified, more time may be needed before an outbreak is declared over because it isn’t known whether the risk is over.”

As far as Rep. DeLauro is concerned, the food item has been identified and the risk to the public is not over. She asked the CDC director to report back to her — in writing — on six specific points.

  1. What is the current status of both the U.S. E. coli outbreak and CDC’s investigation?
  2. When was the first E. coli infection, associated with the U.S. outbreak, reported to the CDC?
  3. Following reported illnesses, when did CDC initially begin investigating the U.S. outbreak?
  4. What is the CDC’s justification for waiting almost a month and a half before publicly confirming the outbreak?
  5. To what degree has the CDC collaborated with the Public Health Agency of Canada regarding both countries’ investigations and the data from the illnesses in Canada?
  6. What information does CDC currently have regarding the source of the outbreak, and what information exists on implicated suppliers, distributors or retailers of contaminated food products?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been similarly mum on the outbreak. On Jan. 2 a spokesman for FDA said the agency is working on the investigation, but that most details are not available to the public. The FDA has not posted any information about the outbreak units website.

“The FDA is supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local authorities in an investigation of an outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7 illnesses,” the FDA spokesman told Food Safety News.

“CDC informed FDA of this illness cluster in Mid-December. As with all outbreak investigations our role is to identify the source of the food(s) the CDC identifies through case interviews and other evidence to identify what was commonly eaten among the people who became ill, and determine whether it is linked to the outbreak through testing or other evidence. Please reach out to CDC for more information about their epidemiological investigation.”

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