Bean sprouts contaminated with salmonella bacteria have sickened 68 people in 10 states -- including New York -- according to federal health officials who identified a Brooklyn company as the outbreak's source.
Wonton Foods Inc., which produces prepared and raw Asian foods, has been asked by investigators from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to stop shipping the product for now. In a statement, FDA officials said the company has verbally agreed to cease sales. No other foods produced by the company have been linked to salmonella contamination, federal health officials said.
No one from Wonton Foods returned a call seeking comment Friday.
The offending bacteria, Salmonella enteriditis, first emerged in the Northeast during the 1980s and mostly was associated with tainted eggs. The number of outbreaks linked to the strain quickly spread nationwide during the 1990s. Now it is associated to contaminating numerous types of foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among those who've gotten sick in the current outbreak, the FDA lists five from New York, but officials Friday could not pinpoint where in the state those illnesses occurred. State and federal health authorities are advising the public to avoid Wonton Foods' bean sprouts. Illnesses date back to September and have affected people ages 1 to 83. Eleven people have been hospitalized. A person infected with the bacteria usually has a fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea 12 to 72 hours after consuming a contaminated food.
A special division of the CDC -- the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System -- is conducting antibiotic resistance testing on bacterial samples from people who have become ill. Salmonella is so-called Gram negative bacteria, which cause severe illness and are tough to fight because only a dwindling number of antibiotics are available to defeat the bugs.
Bill Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer who represents food-poisoning victims, said in his blog Friday that it may be time for consumers to stop eating sprouts. He said there have been so many outbreaks linked to all kinds of sprouts -- those grown from mung and soybeans to those propagated from alfalfa seeds -- that they increasingly are seen as a risky food choice.
"As far back as 1998 the FDA issued a warning against sprouts," Marler said. There have been three sprout-related outbreaks since August, he said.
FDA data show there have been 30 outbreaks of food-borne illnesses linked to sprouts since the 1990s and that bacterial species have ranged from various strains of salmonella to listeria and E. coli. Growth conditions that are ideal for sprouts, scientists say, are also excellent for bacteria. Even lightly cooked sprouts still have contained bacteria, federal health officials say.
In addition to the outbreak linked to Wonton Foods, the FDA reported Friday that a company called Henry's Farm Inc. of Woodford, Virginia, has been identified as the source of soybean sprouts that are contaminated with listeria monocytogenes. The contaminant can trigger severe and sometimes fatal illnesses in people with a weakened immune system.