Canada’s E. coli steps lag U.S. be­cause of caseloads: ex­perts


TORONTO When news broke Tues­day that con­sumers should avoid eat­ing ro­maine let­tuce be­cause of an E. coli out­break, the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion swiftly de­manded re­tail­ers re­move the veg­etable from store shelves and restau­rants stop in­clud­ing it in meals.

But in Canada, the coun­try’s pub­lic health and food in­spec­tion agen­cies stopped short of in­sist­ing on its re­moval, de­spite it be­ing linked to the ill­nesses of 18 peo­ple in On­tario and Que­bec — six re­quired hospi­tal­iza­tion.

Ex­perts said the dif­fer­ence in ap­proach likely stems from how many cases crop up in a coun­try, how cau­tious na­tions want to be about pro­tect­ing in­dus­tries and how com­fort­able a coun­try is with their hunches about the out­break’s ori­gins.

Nor­man Neu­mann, the vice-dean of the Univer­sity of Al­berta’s School of Pub­lic Health, said dur­ing out­breaks af­fect­ing Canada and the U.S., health bod­ies from both coun­tries will likely con­sult each other on in­ves­ti­gat­ing the source, but don’t al­ways co-or­di­nate their re­sponses.

He sus­pects the U.S. has gone a step fur­ther than Canada in part be­cause U.S. au­thor­i­ties re­ported 32 cases of E. coli, 13 of which in­volved a per­son who was hos­pi­tal­ized. “The caseloads are higher in the U.S. so it might sug­gest a lit­tle bit more of a se­vere re­sponse in the U.S.,” he said.

Pin­point­ing the ex­act cause of the out­break can be tough be­cause pub­lic health of­fi­cials often have to search for sim­i­lar­i­ties in places those who fall ill have vis­ited or what they’ve eaten.

It can take a week for symp­toms to ap­pear in some cases and by then, ask­ing some­one to re­call ev­ery­thing they ate the week be­fore might be dif­fi­cult and thus af­fect a health agency’s com­fort in tak­ing ac­tion against a par­tic­u­lar source of the out­break, Neu­mann said.

“When there are out­breaks, cer­tain things have been im­pli­cated only to find out years later the epi­demi­ol­ogy ev­i­dence wasn’t sound or se­cure,” he said. “You can pin­point a po­ten­tial source only to find out a few weeks, months or years later it was maybe not the source and we ru­ined an in­dus­try in re­sponse.”

The Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment about why it had stopped short of in­struct­ing gro­cery stores to stop sell­ing ro­maine let­tuce and restau­rants to cease serv­ing it. How­ever, the CFIA has said if the con­tam­i­nated prod­ucts are iden­ti­fied in Canada, they will take the nec­es­sary steps to pro­tect the pub­lic, in­clud­ing re­call­ing them.

Gro­cery gi­ants Em­pire Com­pany Ltd., Loblaw Com­pa­nies Ltd. and Metro Inc. haven’t waited for an of­fi­cial re­quest though. On Wed­nes­day, they said they were tem­po­rar­ily tak­ing hun­dreds of prod­ucts con­tain­ing the veg­etable off shelves at thou­sands of gro­cery stores that they own.

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