Health officials said Wednesday that 10 cases of E. coli bacterial contamination, including at least nine in children, have been traced to fruit juice made by Odwalla Inc., a company that markets its products as ecologically friendly.
The fresh beverage company, based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., immediately announced a national product recall of fresh apple juice and all products containing fresh apple juice as an ingredient.
Odwalla produces more than 30 juice blends, and natural spring water, made without concentrates, pasteurization or preservatives. It sells its products in select markets in Washington, California, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, British Columbia, and Texas, where it just entered the Dallas, Houston and Austin markets this month.
So far, there have been 13 confirmed cases of E. coli bacterial infection, and health officials are investigating another eight or nine possible cases, Dr. Alonzo Plough, director of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, told a news conference.
None of the victims was reported to be seriously ill.
Plough and other health officials said the contamination appeared to be in unpasteurized apple juice, but they said investigators had not determined where in the manufacturing process the contamination was occurring.
The officials stressed, however, that people should avoid all unpasteurized beverages.
Plough said 10 of the 13 confirmed victims drank Odwalla beverages containing unpasteurized apple juice. Nine of the 10 were children 10 years old or younger, he said. All drank the juice between Oct. 11 and 21.
The other four victims are ages 11, 18, 19 and 22. Plough and officials from the state Department of Health said they did not immediately know which one of those drank Odwalla juice, nor had they determined the source of infection for the other three.
The state notified the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Odwalla of the link earlier Wednesday.
“Our first concern is for the health and safety of those affected,” Stephen Williamson, Odwalla chief executive officer, said Wednesday afternoon. “We are working in full cooperation with the FDA and the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health.”
Odwalla’s drinks are especially popular with college students and young adults, and the company markets itself and its drinks as pure and natural.
Nine people were infected in King County, including a child visiting from Chicago, three in Snohomish County and one in Thurston County, the state Health Department said.
In Oregon, the state Health Department was reviewing that state’s four E. coli cases from the month of October to see if any of the patients drank apple juice, department spokesman Paul Cieslak said.
“We are very deeply concerned,” Jeff Basch, Odwalla’s district manager in Seattle, told KIRO-TV.
“What we are doing now is we have people manning the phones, calling all of our accounts asking them to pull the juice, put the juice in the back room and we are going to send out all of our trucks tomorrow to pull the juice off the shelves,” Basch said.
The company also gave samples of the juice to the FDA and Seattle-King County Health Department so they can test it, he said.
The bacteria, E. coli O157:H7, is the same bug that killed three children and sickened hundreds in Western Washington in early 1993. That outbreak was traced to contaminated and undercooked hamburgers served at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants.
“We know this organism is still very much in our environment,” said state health officer Dr. Mimi Fields. “It is not a mystery to us and we can only reiterate again and again the basic public health messages.
“Among those, as Dr. Plough says, is do not drink unpasteurized products, be they fruit juices, milk or milk products.”
Infected individuals were asked to fill out a 13-page questionnaire, helping them to remember everything they ate during the week before they got sick.
Officials were alerted to the outbreak when three children were sent to Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Seattle with severe complications from the bacteria, said Marcia Goldoft, a medical epidemiologist with the state Health Department.
A total of five children were admitted to the hospital between Oct. 19 and Oct. 24. As of Wednesday, one was still hospitalized, but hospital spokesman Dean Forbes said the child was in satisfactory condition.
People infected with E. coli bacteria often develop abdominal cramps and severe or bloody diarrhea within an average of three or four days.
One severe complication is hemolytic uremic syndrome, a liver condition that can cause kidney failure.
In the past five years, the number of annual cases statewide has ranged from a low of 140 in 1995 to 741 in 1993, state Health Department spokeswoman Linda Waring said. This year, 98 cases had been reported before the latest outbreak.
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