Another E.Coli Outbreak Shows Limits of U.S. Food Safety

Mark J Terrill/AP/Shutterstock
November 21, 2018
Updated 22d ago

By Carlo Versano

A nasty E.coli outbreak has caused the government to take the extraordinary step of warning Americans to stay away from all romaine lettuce in any form ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, and experts are praising regulators for issuing such a sweeping alert ー even though it will affect the Thanksgiving holiday meal prep of millions of families and restaurants.

"The CDC and the FDA deserve credit for acting decisively," said Thomas Gremillion, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, in an interview with Cheddar Big News on Wednesday.

Because food-safety officials have not determined the source of the outbreak, the CDC issued a blanket warning against “all types or uses of romaine lettuce, such as whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, and bags and boxes of pre-cut lettuce and salad mixes that contain romaine, including baby romaine, spring mix, and Caesar salad.”

Consumers, food suppliers, and restaurants are being told to throw out any romaine lettuce they have in their refrigerators and to sanitize any areas that the lettuce may have touched.

At least 32 people in 11 states and 18 in Canada have gotten sick from the E.coli strain. Thirteen have been hospitalized.

The outbreak follows an earlier E.coli scare in the spring that killed five people and sickened over 200. That outbreak was traced to infected canal water in Yuma, Ariz. Gremillion said the confusion around the scale and scope of that outbreak allowed consumers to ignore the underlying alert. But now regulators are "learning a message from that outbreak and taking a precaution to send a clear message."

In other words: better safe than sorry.

As the popularity of pre-made and washed salad kits blossomed over the last two decades, evidence shows an encouraging tie to an increase in vegetable consumption among Americans. But those bags and plastic containers are also breeding grounds for bacteria, which have a chance to multiply in the moist, confined spaces as they get shipped around the country. Yet, advancements in food safety have not kept up with the changes in the supply chain, according to Gremillion.

He argued for accelerating new guidelines that would make "traceback" ー the act of figuring out where a pathogen contamination began ー easier to pinpoint in the aftermath of an outbreak.

For full interview click here