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Giant Eagle recalls thousands of bags of shredded iceberg lettuce

| Friday, Oct. 14, 2011, 12:00 p.m.

Western Pennsylvania's largest supermarket chain recalled thousands of bags of shredded iceberg lettuce and sandwich trays containing the lettuce because some of it was contaminated with listeria, a foodborne bacteria officials are blaming for 23 deaths in the United States in recent weeks.

Giant Eagle's recall is the third of perishable foods believed contaminated with the bacteria in the United States since last month. The lettuce recall so far is limited to Giant Eagle, the Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday.

The store said the FDA informed it that it found listeria monocytogenes in a random sample of Giant Eagle's store brand, Farmer's Market 8-ounce package of Shredded Iceberg Lettuce, a product of River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC of Salinas, Calif., with a use-by date of Oct. 14, 2011. It is unclear when the lettuce hit store shelves.

"The recall is only for that brand and for that expiration date," said Dick Roberts, a Giant Eagle spokesman. No one reported illnesses linked to consumption of the lettuce, he said.

Giant Eagle removed all potentially affected products from shelves and will refund the purchase price to customers who return the products.

"This is the first we know of this," said Stephanie Yao, a spokeswoman for the FDA. A spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health said River Ranch is cooperating with investigators but has not initiated a voluntary recall of its products.

Yao did not know how or where inspectors discovered lettuce contamination. "We have our own inspections and also work with state departments of agriculture and health," she said.

River Ranch declined to comment.

Last week, True Leaf Farms in Salinas voluntarily recalled Romaine lettuce because of listeria contamination concerns in 19 states, including Pennsylvania, and Canada.

The FDA received no reports of illness connected to that recall, but symptoms of listeriosis can take weeks to appear, public health officials say.

Giant Eagle Inc. reports about $5.5 billion in annual sales, and operates 216 supermarkets and more than 100 fuel and convenience stores throughout Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

Yesterday's announcement comes amid the deadliest known outbreak of foodborne illness in the United States since the 1980s. As of Tuesday, 23 people have died in connection with an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems who consume food contaminated with listeria are most vulnerable, according to the CDC.

Transmission of listeria to perishable foods is somewhat of a mystery, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food-safety director at the nonprofit Center for the Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer advocacy group.

"It's an open research question as to what steps growers can change to prevent this. It is certainly a concern that listeria is being found so frequently," DeWaal said.

Packagers of meats and cheeses mostly can control listeria, DeWaal said. "But controlling it in perishable vegetables and fruits has proven to be more challenging," she said.

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