A 66-year-old woman who was sickened by E. coli is suing Panera Bread after apparently eating contaminated romaine lettuce at a restaurant in New Jersey.
Louise Fraser first experienced abdominal pain within days of eating at a restaurant in Somerset County, according to a federal complaint. Then came bloody diarrhea and vomiting that sent her to the emergency room March 25. Doctors diagnosed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a life-threatening illness that happens to a small number of people infected with Escherichia coli and can lead to kidney failure.
The Food and Drug Administration has not identified specific farms or companies that grew, supplied and distributed the contaminated products. According to Fraser's lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in New Jersey, Ohio-based Freshway Foods supplied contaminated lettuce to Panera Bread.
A spokeswoman for Freshway Foods, which Fraser also sued, said she cannot comment on pending litigation. Panera Bread's media office has not responded to an email requesting comment.
Fraser's lawsuit comes amid an outbreak of E. coli illness that has spread to several states and sickened dozens of people. Federal officials say the outbreak was caused by bagged and pre-chopped romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Ariz., region, near the border to Southern California, and distributed to retailers and restaurants across the country.
According to the complaint, Fraser, of Flemington, N.J., was hospitalized for more than two weeks and underwent multiple blood transfusions, among several treatments.
“I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy,” Fraser told NJ.com. She did not return a call Tuesday.
Her attorney, Bill Marler, said a possible link was identified between Panera Bread and E. coli cases from multiple counties. A spokeswoman for New Jersey's health department did not comment on questions about Panera Bread, but county officials told NJ.com they are investigating a cluster of E. coli illness cases that are potentially linked to local Panera Bread restaurants.
Marler said he expects the number of reported illnesses nationwide to grow as officials investigate how romaine harvested from the Yuma region made it to retailers and restaurants around the country.
“This stuff went everywhere. It's conceivable that we may be seeing the beginnings of a fairly significant outbreak,” Marler told The Washington Post Sunday. “They've linked it to Yuma, because that's where romaine this time of year is grown. It's unclear how it made it from Yuma. ... What we don't know is the sort of supply chain in between.”
Romaine lettuce is sometimes packed in the fields and shipped directly to restaurants or grocery stores. Other times, Marler said, the vegetables are taken to a central processing plant, where they are packed under different brands before they are sent to retailers. The latter situation could make identifying the specific origin of contaminated vegetables more difficult, Marler said.
Last week, Fresh Foods Manufacturing, based in Freedom, Pa., recalled 8,757 pounds of prepackaged salad products over fears they may have been contaminated with E. coli. The recalled items were labeled “Great to Go by Market District” and were shipped to retailers in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Though officials say no E. coli-related illnesses have been tied to the Fresh Foods recall, 35 people from 11 states were reportedly sickened last month; 22, including three suffering from kidney failure, have been hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No one has died.
Health officials said these people became ill between March 22 and March 31. The majority reported they ate romaine lettuce within a week before they became sick. Many said they ate salads with romaine lettuce at restaurants, and these businesses told health officials they used store-bought chopped romaine lettuce.
The highest number of illness was reported in Idaho and Pennsylvania, with eight and nine cases, respectively. Seven were reported ill in New Jersey. The others were in Washington state, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Virginia and Connecticut. Health officials in Montana and Arizona also said they each have confirmed cases of E. coli infections. The CDC, as of its latest announcement last week, has not linked those cases to romaine lettuce from Arizona, a spokeswoman said.
E. coli are bacteria found in undercooked beef, raw milk, soft cheeses made from raw milk, raw fruits and vegetables and contaminated water. Most E. coli bacteria are not harmful, but one type known as E. coli O157: H7 produces a toxin called Shiga, which destroys red blood cells, and causes kidney failure and bloody diarrhea. Other kinds of E. coli cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia.
Health officials said children younger than 5, seniors older than 65 and those with weak immune systems are most vulnerable. So far, the outbreak has sickened people ages 12 to 84.
Outbreaks of E. coli illness associated with leafy green vegetables are not new. The complaint filed on Fraser's behalf lists nearly 20 outbreaks from 1993 to 2011 that mostly involved romaine lettuce. In 2006, a nationwide outbreak involving contaminated baby spinach sickened more than 200 people.
Other products, such as flour and nut-free substitute for peanut butter, have been at the center of E. coli illness outbreaks in recent years. In 2015, Chipotle Mexican Grill, a restaurant chain popular for its promise to offer high-quality and sustainably sourced food, found its reputation tarnished after 60 people from 14 states were infected with E. coli.