You might have seen news reports explaining that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating a multi-state outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections linked to romaine lettuce harvested from California. But you may not realize that the outbreak has spread to 23 states, including Texas, and produced 102 reported cases and 58 hospitalizations.

Further, reports of this bacteria contaminating lettuce, spinach and other produce in the United States have increased dramatically in recent years, raising several questions. What are these bacteria? Why are they contaminating produce? What can I do to protect my family?

E. coli is a bacterium commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals as part of their natural microbiota; however, some E. coli can make people very sick, causing a variety of symptoms from stomachache, diarrhea and kidney failure. The type of E. coli known as O157:H7 is one of the most harmful because it produces a toxin that can cause kidney failure.

This type of E. coli was discovered in the 1980s when it contaminated hamburger patties of a famous fast-food chain. The number of outbreaks associated with bacteria-contaminated meats increased over the years, but changes in the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations and the way meat is inspected have significantly reduced these outbreaks.

However, in recent years, E. coli has found ways to adapt and survive on the surface of lettuce and spinach, creating a new challenge for food producers, regulatory agencies and consumers.

E. coli O157:H7 is found in the intestine of infected cattle and although it doesn’t harm these animals, it can be released in their feces and contaminate water or soil. If a cattle farm or ranch is near fields growing lettuce, spinach or other vegetables, it’s possible for E. coli to contaminate the produce. These bacteria can survive inside vegetables until they’re consumed.

With the increased consumption of packages of precut lettuce, spinach and salad mixes that are labelled “thoroughly washed” or “triple washed,” people often have a misplaced sense of safety. However, as a consumer, you should be mindful of all the steps that it takes to guarantee food safety during harvesting, processing, packaging, shipping, storage, sale, and finally, in your own home.

Therefore, we recommend the following steps to increase your food safety at home: Consume fresh produce from farmer’s markets or stores that sell local produce with a freshness guarantee. If you do purchase salad packages, always wash all your vegetables. First, clean the sink, colander, salad spinner and any utensils with hot, soapy water. Next, use cold running water to wash lettuce/leafy green salads to reduce the potential for cross contamination. Dry in a clean salad spinner or wipe dry with a paper towel that hasn’t been previously used.

Bottom line, please use common sense to protect your family. If you have any doubt about the safety of your salad produce, it’s better to throw it away than risk your family becoming ill.

Dr. Alfredo Torres is the Herman Barnett Distinguished Professor in microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch and an expert in E. coli infections.

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(2) comments

Diane Turski

I have begun growing my own lettuce and other salad greens hydroponically. It's easy to do indoors and it is organic and safe. Aerogarden sells the equipment and seed pods. They can also be ordered through Amazon.

Carlos Ponce

Good idea Diane! I traveled Mexico through the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. I noticed they were not fond of "ensalada" - too many diseases associated with it since they used "honey pots" for fertilizer. With illegals from Mexico and South America working farms, I wonder.....

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