This month alone, 53 Americans have been sickened by E. coli linked to romaine lettuce, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The agency issued a foreboding warning to anyone who had purchased any romaine, or lettuce that might be romaine if it could have been grown in Western Arizona: ‘throw it away.’
This outbreak is particularly dangerous because it involves a strain of the bacteria that produces the potentially deadly Shiga toxin.
A food product safety expert told Daily Mail Online that the romaine contamination is to be taken seriously – and the ground where 90 percent of winter lettuce grows could be toxic for years.
About percent of leafy greens eaten in winter are grown in the Yuma area, where some fields have been contaminated with E. coli and may not be free of the bacteria for years (file image)
This most recent outbreak of E. coli has hospitalized 31 people in 16 states, according to yesterday’s announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jaydee Hansen, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety says that this particular form of the bacteria is ‘nothing you want to take your chances with.’
This strain ‘produces a toxin called Shiga and the amount of E. coli that could get you seriously ill would fit on the tip of a pen,’ he warns.
Most forms of E. Coli are relatively harmless and will only make the very young, very old and those with compromised immune systems.
So when there are major outbreaks reported, they are usually due to Shiga-producing E. coli, which ‘will kill healthy people,’ says Hansen.
‘I’m being overly-cautions and, yes, they have narrowed this down to growers in Yuma, Arizona, but this stuff gets shipped all over the country,’ he adds.
About 90 percent of the leafy greens we consume between November and March are grown in Yuma, according to Bloomberg.
Packing, shipping and stocking the romaine just gives E. coli an even richer breeding ground.
‘The lettuce itself is infected, then it gets packaged in a plastic bag or box and anyone who’s ever done experiment’s in high school with petri dishes – that’s basically what you get.
‘Unless it is kept really cold, stuff continues to grow,’ he says.
This is why health officials have advised particular caution be taken with pre-cut, packaged romaine.
But even if the lettuce isn’t in this packaging on the shelf, it may have been transported in containers that fostered the growth of bacteria.
Then, once it reaches a store, ‘grocers take one bunch and set it next to the other bunch,’ where the E. coli can transfer from one to the next, according to Hansen.
‘So even if someone says, “no, it doesn’t come from Arizona,” it’s really a maybe,’ he adds.
The spread of the bacteria is partly due to the industrial nature of farming in the US.
For this reason ‘you can get leafy greens all year round, but the bad thing is that you don’t really know anything about how safely its raised,’ says Hansen.
Bad E. coli typically comes from the feces of animals.
Often, ‘farmers are growing leafy greens right next to huge animal facilities and those are likely to contain animals that get sick and may wander through the fields, or farmers may use manure that hasn’t properly been treated,’ Hansen explains.
‘No one in the food business wants to kill people, but a few bad actors that haven’t made sure their manures have been properly composted really impact the whole industry.
‘Food poisoning is killing about 600 people a year, and if you had someone killing 600 people a year, you would be much more aggressive about doing something about it,’ Hanson says.
Of those infected by E. coli this time around, Hansen estimates that 70 percent are women.
‘My male friends don’t eat enough leafy greens, but my female friends and my daughters eat leafy greens, so it is not surprising that 70 percent of the people getting sick are women and girls – they’re following their doctor’s advice,’ he says.
But now he’s advising otherwise.
Because the bacteria is pulled up into the romaine plants from the soil through their roots, there is no guarantee that it can be washed off.
Instead, Hanson says that – in spite of the warming weather – now is a good time to get your greens by eating cooked spinach in a soup or stew, where the high temperature can kill of bacteria.
Sadly, it may be a long time before romaine is totally safe again.
To get rid of E. coli in the soil, farmers basically have to let the field go barren, or nearly so.
Turning the soil to redistribute the bacteria so that sunlight and heat can go to work on them may speed the process but, in Arizona, ‘crop from that one area will continue to be unsafe, probably until they grow it in other fields,’ Hanson says.
‘You don’t want to be growing leafy greens in those fields for a number of years,’ he adds.
For now, cases of E. coli ‘seem to be increasing,’ and the only clear indicator of when the danger has passed will be ‘when the CDC and FDA say there are no more cases.
‘For now, the best advice I can give to people is don’t eat romaine,’ says Hanson.