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Officials say lettuce likely caused Alabama E.coli outbreak

HUNTSVILLE (AP) — Health officials say shredded lettuce served at a Huntsville restaurant was probably the source of an E. coli bacteria outbreak that has sickened 18 people in the past week.

But they also caution that it’s still early in the investigation and tests aren’t fully complete.

Dr. Debra Williams, assistant director of the Huntsville-Madison County Health Department, said all signs point to lettuce served by Little Rosie’s Taqueria as the probable culprit.

Fourteen of the 15 people who have tested positive for E. coli ate at the restaurant June 28-29, she said. The other victim did not eat there.

Health officials are awaiting test results on three other Little Rosie’s customers who have symptoms of E. coli exposure.

“We think it was a cross-contamination handling issue” by a restaurant employee, Williams said.

Fred Grady, chief of the state health department’s epidemiology division, said it’s “a little premature” to call lettuce the source of the outbreak because his agency is still reviewing information collected from victims and the restaurant.

Alabama restaurants are required to toss out fresh produce after four days, so any tainted lettuce served by Little Rosie’s in late June is probably long gone, Grady said. “It’s safe to eat there,” he said.

Health officials considered closing the popular Mexican eatery, but Williams said the contamination was apparently just a “two-day event.”

Little Rosie’s set up a toll-free hot line Tuesday — (800) 328-7761 — for customers who have questions or concerns about the E. coli outbreak.

Pam Ritz, who helps run the restaurant’s risk management program, urged health officials not to speculate on the source of the illness until epidemiologists in Montgomery finish their work.

“We’re being a little too quick to say it’s any specific product before all those cultures are done,” Ritz said Tuesday.

Tod Craig, co-owner of Little Rosie’s, said his company is having all 80 restaurant workers tested for E. coli bacteria and to prevent cross-contamination, lettuce is being chopped by a single employee who does not handle meats. The restaurant has also taken steps to make sure different tongs are used for raw and cooked meats on the grill.

“We’re trying to be proactive on this and do even more than what the Health Department is asking us to do,” Craig said.

Health officials have said the condition of at least three of the victims was severe enough to threaten kidney damage. The youngest victim, 5-year-old Samuel Coggin of Meridianville, was being treated for kidney damage at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and was to receive dialysis.

Kidney failure is the biggest danger of E. coli; other symptoms include bloody diarrhea and painful abdominal cramps.

“He wants to go home, but he’s been brave,” Samuel’s mother, Dinah Rene’ Coggin, said told the paper by telephone Tuesday afternoon. “We’re hanging on prayers.”

She said doctors hope that dialysis will flush the toxic bacteria from Samuel’s system and allow his ailing kidneys to recover.


Information from: The Huntsville Times,

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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