Are Leafy Greens Safe? 40 E. coli Outbreaks in the Past Decade
According to the CDC, leafy greens have caused 40 E. coli outbreaks alone over the past decade, with the majority of cases stemming from romaine lettuce. Are leafy greens to blame for the food poisoning outbreaks? Or are food producers at fault for unsatisfactory food safety protocols? Scientists have offered several possible explanations for the outbreaks, including why some leafy greens are more susceptible to food borne illness causing bacteria compared to others.
While examining 40 E. coli outbreaks that occurred from 2009 to 2018, scientists found that romaine lettuce was the source of contamination for 54 percent of outbreaks, respectively compared to spinach and iceberg lettuce, which individually accounted for 17 percent of outbreaks, and cabbage, green leaf, and kale, which individually accounted for 4 percent of outbreaks. Although romaine lettuce surged in popularity during this time period, the amount of product sold does not account for the amount of outbreaks caused, especially considering the fact that more iceberg lettuce was harvested and sold during the decade compared to romaine lettuce. The current hypothesis behind why romaine lettuce has caused so many E. coli outbreaks is simple: the leafy green’s structure. Compared to the densely packed leaves of iceberg lettuce, romaine’s loosely clumped leaves with an opening at the top enables easy access for food poisoning pathogens.
Food safety specialist Benjamin Chapman, in an opinion agreed with by national E. coli lawyer Ron Simon, believes that the E. coli outbreaks are partially caused by the environment required for growing leafy greens. Entailing an excess of water, leafy greens are typically grown outside in the United States, typically in places surrounded by animals, a substantial source of E. coli. Through cross contamination from the animals, handling, and irrigation water, it is entirely plausible for leafy greens in these fields and farms to be poisoned with E. coli. Once the leafy greens have been contaminated with E. coli, it can be very difficult to remove depending on the level of contamination, meaning that even rinsing produce at home may not remove the bacteria. Most importantly, because leafy greens are typically eaten raw, the bacteria is spread directly to its consumer.
Although research is still needed when it comes to leafy greens contamination, one aspect remains clear: it is the responsibility of food producers to test for food borne illness causing bacteria before sending it for consumption, in order to avoid infections and outbreaks. Outbreaks such as the red onion Salmonella outbreak, which has caused over 1500 infections in the United States and Canada, can be potentially avoided by following food safety protocol and testing for lethal food borne illness causing bacteria.