PHOENIX -- Public health officials said Wednesday it is "unlikely" that lettuce tainted by E. coli-tainted lettuce traced to growers in Yuma, Ariz., still on the market, even as the number of cases in a national outbreak continues to climb.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 23 new cases tied to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region, bringing the number of illnesses to 172.
At least one person has died and 75 people have been hospitalized with the bacterial infection, which has caused 20 people to suffer kidney failure since the outbreak was first reported on April 10.
The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration have not yet identified the source of the outbreak, saying they are still investigating growers, processors and distributors to find a common link.
But officials said on Wednesday there is not much chance the public could still be eating Yuma lettuce.
"It is unlikely that any romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region is still available in stores or restaurants," public health officials said in a bulletin. "The last shipments of romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region were harvested on April 16, 2018, and the harvest season is over."
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That's little consolation for clients of nationally recognized food-safety lawyer Bill Marler, who represents 86 of the people sickened with the same strain of E. coli.
"I am on the phone with the family of a woman in Minnesota," he said shortly after the CDC issued its latest update. "She is in a coma, on a vent and on dialysis (from) eating lettuce."
Marler said he is using lawsuits against restaurants and food suppliers to do what the government has so far not been able to do: Trace the lettuce to a single source. He said through the filing of lawsuits, he hopes to determine the nexus in all of the cases.
Marler represents customers who contracted E. coli after eating at various restaurants, including Red Lobster in Arizona, Papa Murphy's in California, Panera Bread in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and Texas Roadhouse in Georgia.
He said the cases call into question federal food-safety regulations and the voluntary rules established by growers to protect the food chain. He said he feared the standards are failures.
"I think growers, processors, regulators and consumers need to decide if mass-produced romaine lettuce — especially the wash, chopped bagged variety — can be produced safely at all," he said.