Lettuce Talk About It… The Recent E. coli Outbreak

Most people enjoy a salad every now and then because it’s usually a healthy addition to any diet, but recent news has people steering far from the salad bar.

On April 10th, 2018, the CDC issued an initial announcement that they, along with many states, the FDA, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, began an investigation on an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.

 

Quick Side Note…

If you aren’t particularly familiar with E. coli, here’s a brief crash course.

Escherichia coli O157:H7, or E. coli O157:H7, is a foodborne pathogen that thrives in the gastrointestinal tract. Now there are multiple strains of E. coli, and many of these strains can live in the intestinal tract without causing any harm to the host. E. coli O157:H7 does not fall into that “harmless” category. This specific strain is part of a group called enterohemorrhagic E. coli that produces toxins which cause hemorrhaging of the intestines. The most common way humans become infected by this pathogen is through contaminated food or water. And most cases of contaminated products are caused by bovine fecal material.

But lettuce get back to the culprit of this outbreak… Fine, I’ll stop.

 

An Alaska correctional facility was one of the first places where people began to show symptoms of E. coli infection. The FDA has traced this specific outbreak back to romaine lettuce that was grown by Harrison Farms of Yuma, Arizona. Because that lettuce was harvested March 5-16th and is past its 21-day shelf life, Harrison Farms did not produce the lettuce that has caused the most recent illnesses.

The FDA is still conducting an investigation to figure out where the lettuce came from that is causing the other reported illnesses. These illnesses have been traced back to salads prepared at restaurants from bagged, chopped romaine lettuce. The CDC and FDA are working closely together to explain the outbreak as a whole. Because the outbreak of the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli has landed in so many states (25 so far), the investigators are identifying distribution channels of romaine lettuce which will point back to a specific source or grower.

From all the information the FDA has gathered so far, they recommend that consumers do not purchase romaine lettuce that has been grown in the Yuma region. People of all ages are at risk of becoming infected by E. coli O157:H7, but small children, adults over 65, and those with compromised immune systems are more likely to become severely ill.

There are many steps you can take to ensure that you don’t become infected.

  • Do not eat and throw out any romaine lettuce you have already purchased
  • Always practice safe food handling and preparation measures
  • Wash down all surfaces and utensils that may have come in contact with contaminated foods
  • Wash hands with soap and water before and after handling food

 

Outbreaks like this can be prevented and are much less likely to occur when the correct Preventive Controls are in place. Next week (May 15th-17th, 2018), UGA Extension Food Science is holding a workshop on Preventive Controls for the Fresh-Cut Produce Industry where those who attend will become PCQI Certified. Workshops like this allow those in the food industry to better understand the measures that should be taken so their product can safely make its way to consumers. This specific workshop will teach attendees how to prepare a Food Safety Plan and oversee or perform validation of the preventive controls, records review, and reanalysis of the Food Safety Plan.

If you believe you might be experiencing symptoms of an E. coli infection, you should contact your healthcare provider immediately.

For more updates on this current outbreak, click here.