Romaine/E. Coli crisis is it really over?

Food Politics | February 4, 2018 | By

In 2006, the United States experienced a spinach scare that didn’t scare us enough as consumers, or we would have a system that gives us transparent traceability from farm to table.

Advocates for strong local food movements, usually cite traceability as an advantage to eating locally. When you know your farmer, you have opportunities to know something about that farmer’s practices and maybe something about the health of the soil in which the harvest grows, or the water with which the plants are irrigated. Here in Wisconsin, you might even share a meal on that farm and realize very keenly that your farmer really does eat off of his or her own land. Thus, your farmer’s interest in safety run as deeply as yours.

At the tail end of 2017 and early 2018, romaine lettuce was only subject to lukewarm restriction rather than a complete ban from the CDC or FDA. Apparently, there isn’t enough information to ban romaine conclusively, even though a number of states have been affected by tainted romaine. 

From the CDC’s website, we know some very important facts:

    • “Whole genome sequencing showed that the E. coli strains that made people sick in Canada and in the United States were closely related genetically.
    • The source of the romaine lettuce linked to the Canadian outbreak, or where it became contaminated, was not identified.
  • …The investigation was not able to identify a specific type of leafy greens as the source of the outbreak.
    • Leafy greens typically have a short shelf life, and since the last illness started over a month ago, it is likely that contaminated leafy greens linked to this outbreak are no longer available for sale.”

I will be honest, I’m disappointed. Salads were a big part of my plan to have a healthier, happier 2018. The logic and the conclusion of the CDC in dismissing the romaine scare might be persuasive to some, but it’s so lame. It is akin to saying,”The public is essentially safe now, because greens wilt pretty fast.” The CDC hasn’t identified or advocated for the identification of the source of origin and a review of its/their sanitation or irrigation practices. Moreover, if the food producer(s) has (have) bad practices, it’s quite possible that more contaminated leafy greens will be for sale. We just don’t know when. 

As a consumer, I’m curious to know whether this tainted lettuce was the result of neglect, blatant disregard for basic sanitation procedures, irrigation with sewage water (as rumored on some websites) or an accident of processing too much too fast. These things matter in food production. Why take this tainted lettuce so seriously? Because, someone died from eating lettuce in California. What a terrible loss, from something seemingly harmless, from something that could have happened to any one of us. It isn’t the way anyone wants to go.

As a chef instructor who has taught purchasing classes, I don’t understand why after the spinach scare of 2006, our greens aren’t fully traceable in the same way that any mussels we might order are. Absent transparent traceability, the romaine lettuce e. coli outbreak might be the most compelling reason to “eat local,” to know where your greens are coming from when you buy them. 

Less common ingredients like shellfish arrive at restaurants with tags that identify mussels, oysters, and clams with batch and lot numbers of sorts. If red tide affects a water body from which shellfish have been harvested, a recall can be made immediately; and those shellfish can be removed quickly. This practice in the food industry reflects impressive traceability, but our lettuce greens are too ordinary for that level of scrutiny, or are they?

The 2006 spinach/E. coli fiasco that involved multiple deaths was traced back to a single farm that was leased from a cattle ranch where irrigation water may have been tainted. We know it’s possible to trace greens back to the place of origin, but it takes time. In the Canada, it may be that the source of origin was not identified but can be identified. I’ll watch and wait to hear more, because farming, harvesting, and distribution practices are no longer as safe as we thought. Eleven years without incident might be okay for the CDC, but likely to the families that experienced sickness or the loss of a loved one, any incident is one too many.

Wouldn’t it make sense to have traceability be part of what a food producer and distributors track for any product that gets distributed and goes into the stream of commerce? What makes shellfish that special these days? Tainted romaine and spinach seem to provide special enough circumstances to take a closer look at the process of production and distribution holistically.

If Facebook can track my location and I can have an app for anything I might need, I would think that the food industry could come up with something better than nothing over the course of eleven years.


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