E. coli, Romaine, Food Safety, and Hydroponic Produce

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If it isn’t one contaminant causing food safety issues today, it’s another. In fact, if you check the right news feeds every week, you’ll see that food recalls are a regular thing. Sometimes for suspected contamination, other times for known contamination. Processed foods, frozen foods, and fresh produce can all be a source of allergens or pathogens that can affect someone’s health. What’s worse, officials can’t always pinpoint the source of a pathogen. Or they won’t state its origin.

The biggest problem affecting food safety today is a global supply chain. Too many miles traveled, touched by too many hands, too many unknown factors…

Take the current widespread E. coli outbreak. It started in November, striking Canadians and Americans. Canada had 41 cases of E. coli in 5 eastern provinces; the US had 66 cases in 15 states (mostly eastern) as of Jan. 12. Two people died, one in each country and the particular strain in this instance is also contagious. The only victims that weren’t in the eastern half of the USA were in California.

Investigations by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency determined that the outbreak was likely caused by romaine lettuce. Food safety officials in the US tell a different story, with only 56% of those infected they surveyed reporting eating romaine lettuce. However, it looks like they only included 13 victims in their survey… out of 66 reported cases!

romain lettuce

No recalls were issued either side of the border because the exact source of contamination wasn’t identifiable. Unlike locally grown produce sold farm-direct to grocers and consumers, in our octopus of a modern food system, harvests from numerous farms are only distributed after arriving at a central packing house for cleaning and/or processing and/or packaging. And lettuce’s shelf life is super short.

The states and provinces where this food safety threat erupted are all in the throes of the frigid season. Which means their constant supply of fresh leafy greens comes from farms in frost-free locations. So, even though all the orange and pink states/provinces on the map to the left are in the Northeast, it isn’t odd that California had E. coli victims. Lots of winter lettuce is grown there. Notice the dark gray states? Mainstream media accounts don’t clarify if the Washington cases are from D.C. or the state, but one of them is definitely included in this food safety scare.

Living in an orange state, myself, I can attest that most fresh greens come from sunny California this time of year. But sometimes from southern Ontario, where greenhouse growing is a big industry.

E. coli comes from the intestinal tracts of poultry and animals (both 2-legged and 4-legged). The contamination could be soil-borne, waterborne, or transferred from human skin. Additionally, the cause of this now 9-week-long outbreak is the same pathogen strain in both countries. Though it erupted in Canada first, it’s doubtful that Ontario exported lettuce to California! Canada, however, gets steady California produce imports, especially during winter.

Just last November (yes, 2 months ago) a huge food safety recall involving Listeria-contaminated California-grown vegetables being imported into Canada. A chance random sampling on the part of a Canadian inspector saved a lot of people from illness. The recall spanned the continent, involved numerous brand names and greenwashed marketing terminology. The pathogen, once again, originating in animal digestive systems and manures… including humans.

food safety

Some news sources say the Canadian E. coli outbreak is over. Others say the US outbreak is too, but some (Becker Hospital – USA,  whom you’d think up-to-date on CDC news) claim the outbreak continues. Meanwhile, the mainstream greens farms’ lobbying/marketing organizations work to save face with a blanket press statement. But none of them will respond to reporter inquiries. And food safety officials in two countries continue investigating this particular health threat.

What should you be doing? Avoiding lettuce isn’t the answer. You do have other options, even while snow and ice pile up. Perhaps, like one bistro in Moncton, New Brunswick, you should always buy hydroponic lettuces and greens. In the midst of the ongoing buy-romaine-at-your-own-risk event, they never doubted the integrity of their ingredients. They get all their lettuce from a local source, an indoor farm in the nearby industrial park.

The real food safety problem does have an easy solution. Buy only locally grown foods whenever possible. In today’s world, it’s not just a seasonal thing. Check your area for an indoor farm. The most popular crops for these farmers is lettuces, herbs, and greens. If you find none exists, you can always grow your own in an indoor garden. And if there isn’t an indoor farm near you, it’s a sure sign of a career opportunity. Lettuce that is freshly harvested lasts longer in your refrigerator. It’s also pesticide and contamination-free.

News Sources:

Images courtesy of Joi Ito and Forest and Kim Starr (respectively).


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On a mission to get to the bottom of things, Agent Green digs far and wide in the pursuit of truth.