Let’s Talk About Lettuce

Lettuce in an organic farm (HK)

Been paying attention to the news? Lettuce is a hot topic of late. No, it’s not a new fad diet (though we could talk about the health benefits of eating leafy greens until the cows come home).

Lettuce has been on the product recall list across Canada and the United States for some weeks now. The culprit? E. coli. A nasty little bacteria that can end up in our food system through a bit of bad luck and improper handling. Eating food contaminated with E. coli can have immediate results. Just not the healthy kind.

Here’s a primer that should help you take precautions and enjoy your healthy lettuce eating.

I’m worried. What do I need to know?

The American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has lettuce on their radar. They’ve been investigating an E. coli outbreak affecting romaine lettuce since mid-November. As of Dec. 13, they identified the source in Santa Maria, California. Adam Bros. Farm Inc. tested positive for E. coli O157:H7. The clue? Sediment collected in a water reservoir on the farm.

I buy lettuce at Fiesta Farms. Do I have to worry?

No. Our produce manager, Carmen, lettuce (see what we did there?) in on the details.

“Nowhere in our store do we carry the Adam Brothers label, which makes us out of the scope of this product recall.

Fiesta’s romaine and green/red leaf lettuce are from Arizona’s Andy Boy label.

We carry organic lettuce and cauliflower from Tanimura & Antle in California.

And our regular cauliflower is from Mexico.

If a product we sell is affected by a recall, we take it off the shelf immediately. Once the product is no longer affected, we’ll restock… or we might not bring it back at all.”

What’s being done to fix this?

In short: Product recall.

Grocery stores around North America are taking romaine lettuce (and cauliflower!) off the shelves. Others are replacing them with produce from other farms.
And researchers at the University of Guelph are looking into E. coli… They’ve found it has a preference for romaine lettuce (CBC). Who knew!

Washing Lettuce

So do I have to give up lettuce?

Not at all.

Washing with hot water is a good idea. Cooking it off also tends to work well. But most people like crunchy – not wilted – salad. Us too!

Where can I learn more about product recalls?

Keep track of all Canadian food recalls on the Health Canada website.

But wait! What in the world is E. coli?

It’s bacteria. There are many strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli). Most are harmless, living in the intestines of healthy humans and animals. Yes, you might have some in you right now! But like many bacteria that exist in our world, not all are dangerous.

The cause of the dramatic headlines over the last few weeks is a strain of bacteria scientists call “Shiga toxin-producing” E. coli (STEC for short).

How did this bacteria get into our food system?

Food can become contaminated with E. coli in many ways. The journey depends on the food item and its processing route across the supply chain. You could say that bacteria, too, travels from farm to “factory” to grocery store. Some of the most common ways include:

  • during the processing of raw meat
  • handling of food by a person infected with E. coli
  • contact with contaminated manure or water during growing or harvest
  • cross-contamination with raw food

Today’s food system is global and interconnected. Food can be confusing to track because we bring together produce from many sources. But there are food safety quality assurance systems in place. And we’ve got experts. Think of them as “food system detectives” who identify the cause of outbreaks and track it to the source.

Lettuce - Close Up and Personal

I always wash my lettuce. So how does this happen?

Blame Mother Nature. Have you ever actually looked at a leaf of lettuce? You’ll notice it has a lot of crevices and little bumps. All the leaves fold in on each other. Plus lettuce has nothing to protect it, like a rind or a shell.

We know this. That’s why lettuce is often chopped, washed, and processed for packaging. The idea is to lessen the risk of contamination during transport and in store. But there’s always the chance of contact with bacteria through contaminated tools and machinery. Or even in the kitchen on prep surfaces.

I think I touched contaminated lettuce. Now what?

As always with bacteria, the recommendation is hot water and plenty of soap.

Am I infected with E. coli?

You’ll know it when you feel it. Symptoms of STEC infections can include stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Also, like other bacteria, E. coli infections can be transmitted to others.

Adults and children can infect others for up to a week (and sometimes up to 3 weeks with some children).

Most people who do become ill from E. coli will recover completely on their own. Unfortunately, some people may experience more serious, life-threatening illness. If you’re worried, please see a professional.

So the product recall is on and I’m taking precautions… Is there anything else I need to do?

Sit back, relax, and enjoy a salad… as long as you know where your lettuce is coming from.

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