Since mid-November, dozens of people have fallen ill in both Canada and the United States due to an E. coli infection. According to recent numbers, of the 61 infected, two have actually died. The dangerous strain of this bacteria (i.e., E. Coli O157:H7) has households across North America worried because researchers are claiming the culprit is something families regularly eat – romaine lettuce.
What’s the Source of This E. coli Outbreak?
The bacteria known as E. coli live in the intestines of poultry, cattle, and other animals. So, if it’s inside animals, how do humans become infected? Most commonly, E. coli is spread when humans consume raw fruits and vegetables that have come into direct contact with animal feces.
In Canada, the E. coli outbreak has been making its way across 5 eastern provinces: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland & Labrador. In the United States, the outbreak has reached 13 states: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington.[2,3]
After investigation, officials with a Canadian Food Inspection Agency determined that the root of this E. coli outbreak was romaine lettuce. But U.S. health officials, according the New York Times, are not ready to blame America’s outbreak on the leafy green.
“This time of year, most of our lettuce will come from southern places … so if it’s affecting both countries, it may be from California or Mexico or other countries that produce romaine lettuce,” said Herb Schellhorn, a microbiologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, who specializes in the study of E. coli and other water- and food-borne pathogens. “But it also can be contaminated during the processing by individuals who are infected or if there was fecal contamination introduced at some point in the distribution (process).”
Who Is Most at Risk of E. coli Infection?
In the meantime, while Canadian officials have urged citizens to avoid buying and eating romaine lettuce for now, American officials have not yet issued any recommendations but, as a precaution, it would be in your best interest to consume any romaine lettuce until the E. coli outbreak is safely dealt with.
Anyone with an E. coli infection may fall ill for a few days before full recovering. However, infections can be life-threatening as we’ve seen. For this specific bacterial strain of E. coli, health officials have said that pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, young children, and older adults have the highest risk for infection.
How Lettuce Becomes Contaminated with E. coli
According to a health notice published by the Public Health Agency of Canada, lettuce and other leafy greens can become contaminated in more ways than you probably think. These include:
- In the field by soil
- Contaminated water
- Animals feces
- Improperly composted manure
- Unsanitary handling, storing, and transporting before and after harvesting
- Fridges, counters, and cutting boards through cross contamination with harmful bacteria from poultry, seafood, or raw meat
As you can see from the potential causes above, it’s clear that E. coli infections are not a one-time occurrence. So, to help make sure you avoid any risk of becoming infected by this outbreak or future ones, follow the tips below.
4 Ways to Prevent Infections from Present or Future E. coli Outbreaks
Courtesy of the Public Health Agency of Canada, here is what you should start doing.
- Thoroughly wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, before and handling produce.
- If you buy unwashed lettuce in unsealed or sealed bags, follow these steps:
- Discard the outer leaves
- Wash unpackaged lettuce under fresh, cool water (no need to use produce cleansers or soap)
- Make sure all dirt is washed away
- Store lettuce in your fridge no longer than seven days
- Wash all your cutlery, countertops, cutting boards, and containers with warm water and soap to avoid coli cross-contamination
- If you buy ready-to-eat packages of sealed lettuce that are labeled as washed, pre-washed, or triple-washed, there’s no need to wash them again. Store them in the fridge and eat before its expiration date.
- According to Schellhorn, he “would just throw it out” to be safe.