E coli outbreak strain found in hazelnut sample

Mar 9, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Lab tests have shown that Escherichia coli O157:H7 coli found in hazelnuts from the home of one of three Minnesotans sickened in a three-state E coli outbreak matches the outbreak strain, Minnesota officials said today.

Joshua Rounds, MPH, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), said the in-shell hazelnuts were collected for testing by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The findings are the first product test to suggest that the hazelnuts were contaminated. Earlier epidemiologic investigations in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin had already found that the seven patients sickened in the outbreak had consumed in-shell hazelnuts.

So far, the hazelnuts from one of Minnesota's three patients appear to be the only ones available for testing. Spokeswomen from the Michigan and Wisconsin health departments told CIDRAP News that none of their patients had nuts left for testing. They also said no new illnesses in the two states have been associated with the outbreak.

On Mar 4, DeFranco and Sons, based in Los Angeles, recalled its bulk and consumer-pack in-shell hazelnut products after illness investigations in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin linked them to seven E coli O157:H7 infections. The company said it received the in-shell nuts from suppliers and growers and distributed them nationwide and to Canada.

In other developments, a hazelnut packer that distributed some of the products is refusing share the names of farm sources with US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigators, the Capital Press, a grower industry Web site, reported yesterday. In the Mar 4 FDA recall notice, George Packing was listed as one of the brands distributed by DeFranco and Sons.

Shaun George, a representative of George Packing Co., based in Newberg, Ore., told the Capital Press the company declined to share the grower names with the FDA, because the information is proprietary and the hazelnuts had not been definitively linked to the E coli illnesses.

George said he believed the FDA would investigate practices at the farms, where nuts are harvested off the ground.

Other nuts are harvested off the ground as well, but in 2007, the US Department of Agriculture said California almonds had to comply with new pasteurization regulations established in response to Salmonella outbreaks linked to almonds. The rule was developed by the Almond Board of California, an industry group. California is the world's largest almond producer.

The United States is the world's third largest hazelnut producer, behind Turkey and Italy. About 99% of the nation's hazelnut crop is grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley, according to an Iowa State University industry profile. In 2008 US growers sold 22,400 tons of in-shell hazelnuts.

See also:

Mar 8 Capital Press story

Mar 7 CIDRAP News story "Suspected pathogens spark peanut butter, hazelnut recalls"

Iowa State University background information on the hazelnut industry

Apr 6, 2007, FoodNaviagator-usa.com story

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