Another lettuce recall? Really? Canada just started eating Romaine lettuce again in February, after a recall that had eastern Canada avoiding Romaine lettuce for several months, starting in early winter. Now there’s a new E. coli outbreak in the US. And wouldn’t you know it, the Romaine lettuce is the culprit again!
We live very close to the border, so we’re paying attention to where the outbreak has affected people. There were sick people in both Idaho and Washington, which are the two neighouring states. That made me wonder about the lettuce sold here in our little valley. Our local grocery store is selling American-sourced Romaine lettuce this week. It does give you pause . . .
What is E. Coli?
E. coli is short for Escherichia coli, a rod-shaped species of bacteria that usually lives in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals. The bacteria are part of the normal gut bacteria of cattle, sheep, goats, and also wild animals like deer and wild pigs. They also live in healthy humans.
Most strains of E. coli are harmless. In fact, E. coli can benefit its host. For example, in humans, the bacteria contributes to the production of vitamin K. These beneficial strains can also protect us from getting sick by preventing other disease-causing bacteria from colonizing our intestines. Unfortunately, some strains of the bacteria are themselves pathogenic.
E. Coli 0157
Some strains of E. coli bacteria have the ability to produce a disease-causing toxin, called Shiga toxin. In North America, the most common strain is E. coli O157:H7, or E. coli O157. It was first recognized as a pathogen in 1982.
You may remember people in the 80s talking about E. coli in undercooked ground beef. Most North Americans had never heard about E. coli before that. It was a scary thing to hear about on the news every night. It changed the way we cook meat, especially ground meat. In Canada, restaurants aren’t allowed to sell burgers unless they are well done. The rare or medium rare hamburger is a thing of the past in this country (and I don’t miss it!)
Some people still call E. coli infection “Hamburger Disease.”
Unlike beneficial bacteria, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) cause disease in humans. These forms of E. coli are linked to urinary tract infections, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses, and diarrhea. E. coli 0157 is one of the strains that causes diarrhea. Infection with this strain can also cause some very severe complications, including a kind of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.
How Does E. Coli Get on the Lettuce?
How on earth does “Hamburger Disease” end up triggering a lettuce recall?
We’ve established that E. coli bacteria normally live in the gut of a warm-blooded animal. But it’s very common to hear that fresh produce has been contaminated, as is the case with the April 2018 lettuce recall in the United States. So how do the bacteria get onto fresh produce, and why does it so often seem to be lettuce that’s affected?
The answer is often that fruits and vegetables are grown in soil that’s been contaminated with E. coli. This happens when animal feces get into the water supply used to irrigate the crop, often due to run off from a river where cattle are grazing or where wild animals come to drink. Improperly composted animal manure can also be a source of contamination.
E. coli can also get onto fresh produce during processing. It can be the result of contaminated wash water, or it can be the result of an infected person handling produce in the packing facility or the grocery store. A lot of people handle your lettuce before it gets to you! If anyone who touches the lettuce forgot to wash, of didn’t wash their hands thoroughly, E. coli can get on the lettuce that way.
Avoid Cross-Contamination at Home
Finally, E coli can get onto your lettuce by cross-contamination at home. You can make so many mistakes that could cross-contaminate your food. You might put your lettuce down on a table, countertop, or cutting board that you used earlier for raw meat. Raw meat juice might drip onto lettuce in the fridge. Or you might just set the lettuce down in your kitchen sink, not realizing there are still some bacteria in there.
So be sure to wash your hands thoroughly, and to clean all your surfaces and utensils well. Store fresh greens like lettuce above meat in the fridge. And keep them in a sealed produce bag or lettuce crisper. And wash your hands again after handling food, especially during an E. coli outbreak.
Can I Wash the E. Coli Off?
Like many other aspects of the lettuce recall, this question doesn’t have a straight forward answer. The short answer is this: yes, you can remove most of the E coli bacteria by washing lettuce well. But that may still leave enough coliform bacteria on your lettuce leaves to infect someone in your family.
This is one of the main reasons for this, and any, lettuce recall.
The April 2018 Lettuce Recall
The current American lettuce recall is related to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that involves 43 people in 16 states. The vast majority of people got sick after eating restaurant salads. The restaurants said the salads were made with bagged, chopped Romaine lettuce. The initial health advisories cautioned consumers against eating lettuce that had been pre-cut before sale.
The lettuce recall was expanded after a report from a prison in Alaska, where several people were sick with the same E. coli strain. The individuals didn’t eat chopped lettuce. Rather, they ate foods prepared from whole heads of Romaine lettuce. The lettuce was traced back to the Yuma, Arizona area.
Various government health authorities, scientists, and consumer advocacy groups gave differing advice over the course of several days. But since some of the advice wasn’t really practical, the safest measure turned out to be the broadest one possible. The lettuce recall now includes all Romaine lettuce – whole heads, hearts, and lettuce that’s been chopped and bagged for sale.
If Arizona is the source of all the contaminated lettuce, it’s likely that the outbreak will resolve itself soon. First of all, because lettuce growing has shifted back to California for the season. And secondly, because lettuce has a relatively short shelf life. Any contaminated lettuce that remains will spoil soon, which should end the outbreak.
Should Canadians Be Concerned?
There was a lettuce recall that affected eastern Canada earlier in 2018. In that case, 42 people got sick from E. coli infection and 17 ended up in hospital. One person in Canada died during the outbreak, which ended in early February of 2018. Contaminated Romaine lettuce from the United States caused the outbreak.
Despite the fact that most lettuce sold in Canada during the winter comes from the Unites States, neither the Canadian Food Inspection Agency nor the Public Health Agency of Canada has made a statement about lettuce safety in Canada. Because American lettuce will mostly be coming from California, it’s possible there won’t be any need for a lettuce recall here in Canada.
But Are We Really Sure Our Lettuce is Safe?
Honestly, I’m not qualified to answer that question. And I do wonder why there hasn’t been any statement from health authorities here in Canada. At least to reassure the public that the CFIA has been monitoring the lettuce and so far it’s all been safe, or something like that.
We have decided to avoided buying or eating Romaine lettuce for a little bit, unless we’re sure it’s a product of Canada. We’re watching the news from the US. And we’re hoping the outbreak will end fairly soon. In the meantime, there are a ton of other green leafy vegetables to eat, including other types of lettuce.
It’s really a personal decision. If nobody in your house is at higher risk for complications of an E. coli infection, you might feel it’s safe enough to eat Romaine lettuce that’s from the US. But I imagine that if someone in your family is at risk, you probably already take extra precautions when it comes to food safety. People who may experience severe symptoms or complications from E. coli include:
- Pregnant women;
- Children under age 5;
- The eldery;
- Anyone with a compromised immune system.
How to Get Enough Greens During the Lettuce Recall
Getting a daily serving of dark green vegetables is important for our nutrition, and green leafy vegetables make up a lot of the vegetables that qualify. So what do we do during a lettuce recall? Well, first of all, it’s important to recognize that other types of lettuce are good sources of vitamin A, C, and K. Butterhead lettuce and both red and green leaf lettuces supply the nutrients we’re looking for here.
So if you’re a salad lover like me, you can just use those lettuces to make your salads. You can also substitute in other green vegetables, like spinach or cabbage. Try a healthy spinach salad or mix up a big batch of basic coleslaw. I even saw that President’s Choice has bags of prepared beet slaw, kale slaw, and broccoli slaw, for those who want something fast and easy. A classic wedge salad, unfortunately, does not count. Iceberg lettuce is very low in calories. But also has much lower vitamin content, compared to other varieties of lettuce.
Whether or not you choose to abstain during the US lettuce recall, you can be sure to get enough of your veggies! It’s good to eat a variety of different vegetables, anyway. This helps to ensure your family is getting a broader selection of nutrients and reducing risks associated with things like pesticide residue on fresh produce. So keep up a good variety, whether there are food safety issues or not!
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Original content © 2018 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
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