A new E. coli O157:H7 outbreak is under investigation and has been traced to organic walnuts. More than half of the infected people have been admitted to hospitals.

The Food and Drug Administration announced the outbreak this afternoon along with a recall of organic walnut halves and pieces from Gibson Farms Inc. of Hollister, CA. The walnuts were distributed to various natural food stores and co-ops in 19 states. The walnuts were sold in bulk bins.

Consumers who have the recalled walnuts on hand are urged to throw them away. If it is not clear what company distributed the organic walnuts they should be thrown away. The FDA is working to determine what specific stores received the walnuts.

As of today there are 12 confirmed patients in California and Washington. Seven of the patients have been so sick that they required hospitalization and two patients have acute kidney failure. Of 10 patients interviewed, all 10 reported eating walnuts, and almost all reported buying organic walnuts from bulk bins in food co-ops or natural food stores. Some stores may have repackaged the bulk walnut halves and pieces into plastic clamshells or bags.

There are likely more patients that have not yet been identified because of the time it takes for illnesses to be reported to local state and federal officials. Also, some patients may not seek medical attention, or, specific tests to determine E. coli infection may not be conducted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that for every confirmed E. coli O157:H7 infection there are 26 that go unreported. 

The FDA’s traceback investigation identified Gibson Farms Inc. as the common supplier of walnuts in this outbreak. Gibson Farms has initiated a recall and contacted their distributing customers. Distributors and retailers that may have received recalled bulk organic walnuts are being asked to contact their customers. 

The FDA is working with the firm and its distributors to determine the source of contamination and whether additional products or states are affected.

The recalled walnuts were distributed to stores and co-ops in the following states: Alaska, Arkansas Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. 

About E. coli infections
Anyone who has eaten any of the recalled walnuts and developed symptoms of E. coli infection should seek medical attention and tell their doctor about their possible exposure to the bacteria. Specific tests are required to diagnose the infections, which can mimic other illnesses.

The symptoms of E. coli infections vary for each person but often include severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, which is often bloody. Some patients may also have a fever. Most patients recover within five to seven days. Others can develop severe or life-threatening symptoms and complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 5 to 10 percent of those diagnosed with E. coli infections develop a potentially life-threatening kidney failure complication, known as a hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Symptoms of HUS include fever, abdominal pain, feeling very tired, decreased frequency of urination, small unexplained bruises or bleeding, and pallor. 

Many people with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some suffer permanent injuries or death. This condition can occur among people of any age but is most common in children younger than five years old because of their immature immune systems, older adults because of deteriorating immune systems, and people with compromised immune systems such as cancer patients. 

People who experience HUS symptoms should immediately seek emergency medical care. People with HUS will likely be hospitalized because the condition can cause other serious and ongoing problems such as hypertension, chronic kidney disease, brain damage, and neurologic problems.

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