(Oct. 6, UPDATED COVERAGE) Aunt Mid’s Produce Co. isn’t waiting around for Michigan health and agriculture officials to clear the processor in the state’s investigation of an E. coli outbreak.

“We’ve done some independent lab tests, and they’ve all come back negative,” said Dominic Riggio, president of the Detroit-based company.

The Michigan Department of Community Health said in a Sept. 26 news release that it had linked the outbreak to bagged, industrial-sized packages of iceberg lettuce and named Aunt Mid’s as the distributor.

However, Jennifer Holton, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Agriculture said Sept. 30 that her agency had not “identified the source of contamination or impacted product lots.”

She said the department of agriculture took product samples from Aunt Mid’s on Sept. 29 and environmental samples Sept. 30. Holton said Oct. 2 that initial product tests were negative, but more product tests and environmental tests were pending.

“We want to make sure we’re doing our due diligence,” she said.

Riggio said Aunt Mid’s traceback program is capable of tracking products back to the grower, but he declined to say where the company sourced its iceberg lettuce.

“Until contamination is verified we don’t want to damage our growers the way we’ve been damaged, without proof, by the Michigan Department of Community Health,” he said.

Jerry Wojtala, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s food and dairy division, said Aunt Mid’s was sourcing from multiple growers in multiple states, including California, when the outbreak started.

Universities, jail affected

James McCurtis, spokesman for Michigan’s health department, said that as of Oct. 2 there were 34 reported illnesses in the state and at least 18 hospitalizations. No deaths have been reported.

McCurtis said the health department linked the outbreak to Aunt Mid’s after clusters of illnesses emerged, including nine Michigan State University students and three University of Michigan students who ate at campus facilities and five inmates at Lenawee County Jail.

“Aunt Mid’s is or was the sole supplier to the Lenawee County Jail,” he said. “It is one of many suppliers to MSU. Also, the people who were hit with the same strain in Illinois ate at a restaurant that served lettuce from Aunt Mid’s.”

McCurtis said onset dates in Michigan range from Sept. 9-19, but additional cases could still be reported.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health said Oct. 2 that there have been six illnesses and five hospitalizations associated with the outbreak in that state with onset dates ranging from late August through mid-September.

A spokesman at the Ohio Department of Health said one resident became ill while traveling in Illinois.

Public health officials in New York and Oregon denied published reports that cases related to the outbreak have occurred in those states. Furthermore, Riggio said that contrary to published reports, Aunt Mid’s distributes in the Midwest and parts of Canada, not nationally.

Foodservice customers pull lettuce

Riggio said the company did not issue a product recall, but it did voluntarily suspend processing and sales of its iceberg lettuce.

He said sales of other products also have been affected by media coverage of the outbreak.

“It’s caused customers to suspend orders until the matter is resolved,” Riggio said.

The Detroit News reported some restaurants in the area have taken iceberg lettuce off their menus. The newspaper also reported that one local school district went a step further, removing all salads and lettuce items.

“It never helps when product is linked to an outbreak,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, Sacramento. “Until we know more it’s hard to say what, if any, impact there will be in the marketplace. Obviously, we’re monitoring it. It seems like there are more questions than answers at this point.”