The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the months-long E. coli outbreak has finally ended. But does that mean consumers can put their food safety fears behind them? After all, our favorite leafy greens seem to be getting a bad rap in the past few years. But it seems like romaine lettuce recalls are incredibly common and increasing. This begs the question of “why?”
Why are Romaine Lettuce Recalls So Common?
Since 2017, romaine lettuce has made headlines. Consumers who once thrived on their favorite salad base have turned to alternatives like kale and spinach. But experts warn that it isn’t only romaine lettuce at risk for contamination. Pretty much any leafy green is vulnerable to exposure to bacteria.
Unlike other fruits and vegetables, lettuce grows close to the ground and does not have a rind or protective shell. This makes lettuce more susceptible to germs and bacteria in the soil and water. Jeff Farber, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety notes,
“Leafy greens, such as lettuce, can become contaminated in the field by soil, contaminated water, animals or improperly composted manure. Lettuce can also be contaminated by bacteria during and after harvest from handling, storing and transporting the produce.”
So why are romaine lettuce recalls more common than kale or spinach recalls? Romaine lettuce recalls are more common because romaine lettuce is more common. Lettuce is one of the most popular produce items. The higher the demand for romaine, the more it is produced, and therefore sold. When there is contamination, the impact is much broader.
How the Recent E. Coli Outbreak Impacted Consumers
The CDC reports that the romaine lettuce from Salinas, California that is responsible for the E. coli outbreak is no longer sold. The investigation continues, but the agency reports that consumers no longer have to avoid romaine.
The recent E. coli outbreak took a toll on consumers across the U.S. The strain of E. coli, 0157:H7, is particularly risky and causes potentially serious illness. Here is the final outbreak data reported by the CDC:
- Illnesses reported from September 2019 to December 2019.
- 167 people infected
- Illness occurred in all age ranges – from infants to the elderly
- 27 states involved
- 85 hospitalizations
- 15 patients with hemolytic uremic syndrome
Patients who are infected with the 0157 strain experience a variety of symptoms including:
These symptoms generally resolve in days or weeks. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers that E. coli can lead to potentially dangerous complications. Some people infected by E. coli experience:
- High blood pressure
- Kidney failure
- Chronic kidney disease
The most serious cases of foodborne illness can also be deadly.
Efforts to Improve Food Safety
The risk of foodborne illness or food poisoning is not new, but now more than ever, efforts are being made to improve food safety. Experts are now using technology and genome sequencing to trace the source of foodborne illness outbreaks. Lawmakers are also working toward better regulations.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), for example, is one piece of legislation that experts consider a “major win.” The FSMA will establish uniform safety standards for soil, water and produce. The goal is to implement these standards in most U.S. farms by 2024. The Food Safety Plan will focus on preventative measures, such as identifying biological hazards.
One of the best ways for consumers to improve food safety at home is to be aware of recalls. Consumers should not purchase or consume a recalled product. Another positive step toward improved food safety at home is practicing safe food handling. This includes:
- Wash all produce before handling
- Wash hands before and after handling produce
- Cooking produce kills bacteria and reduces the risk of foodborne illness
- Never allow produce to come into contact with raw meat
As consumers, we have no control over how produce in retail stores is grown or packaged. This means that we have to trust that the company producing our food is practicing good food safety standards. The numerous romaine lettuce recalls has definitely shaken consumer confidence in that particular ingredient. Now more than ever, consumers should be cautious and use good food safety practices when preparing any produce.