“Marked safe from Romaine Lettuce” is the latest meme floating around Facebook, and while it may be something most people laugh at, there are a handful of people around the country getting extremely ill from… lettuce. In May of 2018, the CDC and FDA announced the largest multistate romaine lettuce outbreaks since 2006. Which leaves us wondering, is bagged lettuce safe to eat? Is bagged lettuce better than unbagged lettuce? And how do we avoid getting food poisoning from store bought produce in the first place?
What is Wrong with Romaine Lettuce?
Believe it or not, romaine lettuce food poisoning outbreaks are actually a pretty big deal and major public health threat. When people consume contaminated food, especially lettuce, it takes 2-3 days from ingestion for individuals to exercise symptoms of sickness, like E coli. Once food poisoning is contracted, from contaminated foods, symptoms can vary from mild to life-threatening consequences, even death.
What is Wrong with Bagged Lettuce?
To be clear, there’s nothing really wrong with bagged lettuce. But comparatively speaking, bagged lettuce has a bit more of a bad wrap with consumers when it comes to bacteria, contamination, and foodborne illnesses. Possible contamination starts at the source, the farm, and continues en route to the factory, where lettuce is packed, and beyond.
Romaine Lettuce and E. coli – What You Need to Know
How Does Lettuce Get Contaminated?
How do vegetables get E coli in the first place? Well, the exact solution is hard to pinpoint, in all honesty. There are a few ways it can happen though that are worth noting. The first? At the farm – from a farmworker (not washing their hands), from birds flying overhead and pooping on it, feral pigs roaming into a lettuce crop, or even from dried manure from nearby plots blowing around in the wind. Once lettuce arrives at a factory, there can be cross-contamination and bacteria present that then becomes bagged, where the bacteria has an environment that further growth is possible.
What IS E. coli?
Escherichia coli is widely found in the environment, in food, and even the guts of people and animals. While most strains of E coli bacteria are harmless, and may even be beneficial bacteria in the digestion process, some strains of the bacteria are just the opposite, causing harmful health effects such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and diarrhea (from dehydration). These negative strains can lead to mild sickness and even death in serious cases.
Who is at Risk for E coli Breakouts?
Like most bacterial infections, those who are elderly or small children are more susceptible to contracting infections and sickness from bacterial strains, such as E coli. All bodies don't react the same, and from a simple health standpoint, those who have a healthy and diverse gut microbiome can actually combat bacteria and not ever show signs or symptoms of infection, warding it off altogether.
While food poisoning can come in various forms, usually when an outbreak happens, such as the one with Romaine Lettuce in 2006 and twice in 2018, only the most severe cases tend to be found, reported, and discovered. While the numbers can be a bit alarming, chances are, more cases are out there that are recorded by CDC investigators. Eating a healthful diet, rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients can actually fight bacteria like E. Coli from the start.
Major Lettuce Contamination & Multistate Outbreaks in the United States
2006: Nearly 200 people were sick, half of them were hospitalized, and five people died
May 2018: Nearly 150 people were sick across 30 states, half of them were hospitalized
October 2018: Nearly 32 people were sick across 11 states, thirteen were hospitalized
What is the Source of Romaine Lettuce Outbreaks?
In plain terms, it’s hard to say. Between the efforts of various organizations, like the CDC, FDA, and US food supply, isolating the source of contamination on produce and leafy greens alike is very difficult. I mean, think about it. Think about a farm, how many people are in contact with the food, how many times the food is transported, where it’s transported, and how fast it’s transported. A perishable food item grown in Iowa can be in the Southernmost tip of China within a day.
After an outbreak happens, and cases are reported, investigators have to groom through a complex, industrialized food chain that ships veggies around the country and the world. Most documentation of such processes is only recorded on paper records, handwritten by transportation drivers and operators. While documentation and processes are being modernized, especially since the outbreak in June of 2018 since contamination outbreaks happen so little, the process is a bit behind the technological curve.
All in all, pinpointing the roots of contamination, such as E Coli and Romaine Lettuce, is a lot more of a process and time suck than you may imagine initially.
Quite possibly a better question to ask is…
Does the US Have a Safe Food System?
With various illnesses and bacteria outbreaks on produce and meat products in the United States, one may find themselves how safe food is in the United States. From Listeria to Salmonella outbreaks, E. coli and unsafe produce, food-borne illnesses are a little scary, and for good reason. The United States in recent years has implemented numerous food safety protocols. But how do you know for sure that the food you’re purchasing and serving your family, is indeed, safe to consume? Let’s look at the numbers.
In 2010, the U.S. census bureau reported that the population of the U.S. is 308 million people. If those 308 million people eat, let’s say, two meals a day, that’s 616 million meals eaten every day in the United States. Now if you take those people, and look at those that contract food-borne illnesses based on the CDC’s annual estimates, out of 225 billion meals consumed each year by American’s, 48 million people will fall victim to illnesses from foodborne pathogens. Break that down farther, 127,839 people will be hospitalized, and sadly enough 3,037 deaths will result each year from contaminated food.
What is the FDA Doing About Contaminated Food and Romaine Lettuce Outbreaks?
Comparatively speaking, the World Health Organization statistics state that every year, 2.2 million people die from diarrheal diseases from dehydration. Sure, in a perfect world there would be no risk associated with eating farmed/produced food bought outside of our home.
Considering the statistics, and the fact that less than 0.0004 people in the United States will die from foodborne illnesses each year. While yes, there will always be room for improvement, the U.S. food safety system works as well or better than most all countries in the world. The USDA and the FDA work consistently with producers and processors in the United States and in other countries to set an enforce the standards that provide safe, high-quality food.
Should You Eat Bagged Lettuce? Should You Eat Lettuce At All?
We say… go for it. The best way to not get sick from unsafe or contaminated food is to take precautions before consuming it. While we’d love to believe that all food is safe, the truth is, it isn’t. The solution? It starts with pursuing a healthy lifestyle. Before consuming nutrient-dense foods, buy them from reliable stores, farms, and factories. When you get home, store them in a clean, sanitized drawer. Wash and wipe your food before you eat it.
While yes, foodborne illness outbreaks can be scary and serious, and even bring sadness for those who are seriously affected by it, millions upon millions of Americans consume the very same food each day and do not become sick. It’s frustrating that provisions and recalls have to be so broad but try not to take it out on your local farmer or FDA representative.
Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says that aggressive recall efforts of food “are aimed at making sure we get ahead of this emerging outbreak, to reduce risk to consumers, and to help people protect themselves and their families from foodborne illness outbreak[s]”.
What to Do if You Feel Like You Have Symptoms of a Food-Borne Illness
Symptoms include vomiting, stomach cramps, and bloody diarrhea. If you think you’ve been infected, it’s always advised to see a physician and have your case reported to a local health department.
The Bottom Line
Be an informed consumer and think about your overall health status. If you’re at risk, and something comes out, like a Romaine Lettuce E Coli Outbreak, ditch the lettuce and eat another source of leafy greens until the recall is lifted. The same thing can be said with other food illness outbreaks. Overall, take charge of your health. Take your vitamins regularly to bridge the nutrient gaps in your diet, eat a well rounded and nutritious dietary lifestyle, and pay attention to where your food comes from. Oh, and if you have to, mark yourself safe from the Romaine Lettuce Event on Facebook (wink, wink).
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Park S, et al. Generic Escherichia coli contamination of spinach at the preharvest stage: effects of farm management and environmental factors . Appl Environ Microbiol. (2013)
Solomon EB, Yaron S, Matthews KR. Transmission of Escherichia coli O157:H7 from contaminated manure and irrigation water to lettuce plant tissue and its subsequent internalization . Appl Environ Microbiol. (2002)
Jay MT, et al. Escherichia coli O157:H7 in feral swine near spinach fields and cattle, central California coast . Emerg Infect Dis. (2007)