Story Highlights• E. coli on lettuce at Taco John's restaurants sickened at least 81 people last year
• Investigation continuing, has not determined how lettuce became contaminated
• FDA: 20 outbreaks of E. coli linked to California lettuce since 1995
From Stephanie Smith
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ALBERT LEA, Minnesota (CNN) -- Thursday after work was Terri Kaiser's favorite night: It was bowling night with her three sisters.
But last November, one of those nights turned horrible.
Before hitting the lanes, the four sisters stopped at Taco John's for a quick bite. Kaiser ordered a meat and potatoes burrito with lettuce.
Afterward, the sisters bowled as usual, with no problems. But as one day turned to two, and two days into a week, Kaiser became bedridden.
"I started feeling like I was getting the flu," said Kaiser, 57. "[Then] I started having severe cramps and black, bloody stools. I was feeling like 'Wow what's going on here? This isn't your typical flu.' "
Two weeks later, she was on dialysis.
"It was a shock," said Kaiser. "How can being ill make your kidneys stop working?"
Kaiser and her doctors did not know it yet, but something on those few shreds of lettuce was wreaking havoc on her body. It was E. coli bacteria. The lettuce used by Taco John's restaurants eventually sickened 81 people in three states. Those are the reported cases. Many suspect the numbers are higher. And nobody has gotten answers about how this outbreak happened. (Interactive: Food safety tips)
Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have confirmed that the lettuce most likely came from a farm in Central California. What they don't know is how the lettuce came to be tainted with E. coli 057:H7.
CNN requested information related to the investigation of the Central California farm from the FDA and the California Department of Health Services. The answer on both fronts was that the investigation is "continuing."
E. coli a recurring problem in produce
California produce, it seems, has a problem with E. coli 0157:H7, which is most commonly found in cattle feces. Since 1995 there have been more than 20 outbreaks of E. coli in lettuce and leafy greens traced back to farms in that state. (Map: Tracking outbreaks)
"You'd think that after so many outbreaks, the government and the leafy green industry would do something about this," said Bill Marler, a Seattle, Washington, attorney specializing in food-poisoning cases.
Marler has been at the helm of several lawsuits against the leafy green industry. He says investigations are traditionally slow, and he still does not have a report from a 2005 outbreak in Dole lettuce.
The FDA told CNN that the investigation into lettuce is on hold. It was derailed in part by recent investigations into melamine contamination in pet food, fish, swine and other foods.
"The FDA has to do what it can with the resources that it has," said David Acheson, assistant commissioner at the FDA Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response. "When there is an outbreak, investigators drop what they're doing and respond."
Clinging to life
Nine days after that bowling night, Terri Kaiser lay motionless in a hospital bed, cocooned by tubes, IV bags and the persistent beeps of monitors.
"I kind of shut down with the whole thing," said Loren Kaiser, Terri Kaiser's husband. "That first day the doctor had commented that she may not make it through this ... that it could be fatal."
Her kidneys had stopped functioning and Kaiser could not produce urine. The E. coli cells were hijacking her body's ability to function.
"E. coli 157 produces a very potent toxin that kills human cells," said Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist at IEH Laboratories in Seattle. "A toxin is released, it's absorbed and then starts killing intestinal cells and makes its way throughout the body."
No one can say for sure how the E. coli got on Kaiser's lettuce, but with cows in California residing dangerously close to lettuce crops, most investigations into outbreaks begin at the cow pasture. (How science can help keep our food safe )
E. coli 0157:H7 proliferates in the intestines of a cow. But the pathogen also is carried by other animals, including birds, rodents, deer and elk. The trouble begins when those animals traipse through lettuce fields.
"It's nature," said Samadpour. "You have absolutely zero control, because if the organism is there, wildlife is going to pick it up."
"Some people are just angry and I think some people feel violated," said Marler. "When you think about it, it's not a really pleasant thought that you're eating someone or something's feces. That's just not a very pleasant concept." (Watch: How to wash lettuce )
Kaiser may be getting over the feeling of violation, but she still wants to know how E. coli got in her lettuce in the first place. Her kidneys are functioning at about 44 percent, and she says she's steadily improving, even while contending with an extreme case of hypertension.
"Young children and people older than myself...are going to have a long, long line of problems because of eating poisonous food," said Kaiser. "It shouldn't happen." (Meet a young survivor of spinach-borne E. coli )
As she heals, Kaiser waits for the government to explain why she and others like her went through this pain.
Stephanie Smith is a producer with CNN Medical News. Producer Kelley Colihan and senior producer Caleb Hellerman contributed to this report.
"Young children and people older than myself...are going to have a long, long line of problems because of eating poisonous food," says Terri Kaiser.
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