It’s happened again – Romaine lettuce grown and harvested in Salinas, California is getting people sick from foodborne illness caused by E. coli bacteria contamination. As of right before Thanksgiving on November 26, the CDC reported that 67 cases had been reported in 19 states, leading to 39 hospitalizations, but fortunately no deaths. A nationwide recall of Romaine lettuce grown in this region is in force. Sound familiar? That’s probably because less than a year ago, there was an outbreak caused by the same bacteria which was also associated with Romaine lettuce grown in the same region of California.
What is E. coli infection like?
- People usually get sick from Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) 2 to 8 days (average of 3 to 4 days) after swallowing the germ.
- Some people with E. coli infections may get a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
- E. coli infection is usually diagnosed by testing a stool sample.
- Antibiotics are not recommended for patients with suspected E. coli infections until diagnostic testing can be performed and E. coli infection is ruled out. Some studies have shown that administering antibiotics to patients with E. coli infections might increase their risk of developing HUS, and a benefit of treatment has not been clearly demonstrated.
For the latest information on the outbreak, check the CDC website at: https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2019/o157h7-11-19/index.html
When I think about the scope and scale of our food system, it is impossible not to get a sense of the enormity of the tasks involved in keeping our food safe to eat. The reality is that many products are distributed far across the country (and world), far from where they originated. When a contaminated product enters the food system, the potential reach of the problem could be vast. Think back to a recent example that made news headlines of romaine lettuce grown in California which sickened people in 16 states. In that outbreak, it was the bacteria, E. coli O157:H7, which had contaminated the lettuce and was causing infections. Many other things can get unintentionally get incorporated into our food: plastics, metals, animal parts, insects… not very appetizing, right? For people who have allergies, foods that unexpectedly contain allergens such as nuts, can pose health risks. I saw that a batch of peppermint patty ice cream made by one of my favorite creameries was recalled this last week due to the potential presence of peanuts.
How is our food kept safe? One entity responsible for food safety is the US Food and Drug Administration. The FDA protects the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. Curious about current foods that are the subject of recalls? Check out the “Recalls, Market Withdrawals & Safety Alerts” issued by the US FDA.
Do you often wonder where salable food ends up when it “expires” and can no longer be officially sold? Maybe you suspect that you already know (the garbage). Yet it pains you to think of all the waste, particularly when food is still plenty edible and so many people go hungry?
A recent New York Times article reported on a two-year campaign in Finland to reduce food waste in which supermarkets slash the prices of food items every evening at set hours. The campaign hopes to draw “regular” customers to snatch up the items at a fraction of their regular cost, avoiding otherwise their dumpster fate.
The article pointed out the consequences of food waste from a climate change perspective, including the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food lost during harvest, production or consumer waste, as well as the methane emissions from rotting food in landfills.
Ideally, one would avert food waste by purchasing less in the first place. However, this campaign attempts to stem losses by incentivizing consumers to purchase food that then needs to be eaten relatively soon. Novel idea or nonsense?
One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit local farms and check out what people are growing to eat. It seems that no matter where I am in the world, setting foot on a farm provides me with a sense of grounding and nourishment. This summer I had an opportunity to visit Caoba Farms in Antigua, Guatemala where, in addition to growing fruits and vegetables, the farm has a cactus garden, birds, butterflies, animals and educational areas for children.