As the romaine lettuce outbreak continues across the United States and Canada, experts are warning people to avoid romaine lettuce altogether. The contaminated produce has caused an E. Coli outbreak that has so far infected 58 people. Of the 58 infected, five were hospitalized for serious symptoms, and two have died.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency identified romaine lettuce as the source of the E. coli outbreak but has not yet identified the source of the contaminated produce. “This time of year, most of our lettuce will come from southern places,” Herb Schellhorn, a microbiologist at McMaster University said, “it may be from California or Mexico or other countries that produce romaine lettuce.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada has advised Canadians living in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador to avoid romaine lettuce altogether. In the United States, Consumer Reports has advised that despite no formal warnings from U.S. Government health officials, Americans should avoid romaine lettuce as well.
The people who have fallen ill due to the romaine lettuce outbreak have been diagnosed with a particular strain of E. Coli that can be particularly harmful to young children and older adults. The strain of E. coli found in the contaminated produce, known as E. coli O157:H7, can cause the hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure and cause death in serious cases.
As the romaine lettuce outbreak continues, finding the source of the contamination becomes more difficult. This is due to the perishable nature of fresh produce. “Depending on how it was contaminated, if it was in one large place and it’s the water that was contaminated, that could have implications for other food materials that might have been exposed,” said microbiologist Herb Schellhorn.
The most common source of E. coli infection is fresh fruit and vegetables that have come into contact with animal fecal matter. The infected material can seep into the soil of produce fields through contaminated water or improperly composted manure. Produce can also become contaminated during harvesting, handling, or transport.
Some food industry veterans have expressed frustration at the lack of public information. Until a source has been confirmed and the outbreak has been contained, Canadian and American health officials are highly recommending people avoid romaine lettuce, even if it is contained in pre-washed salad mixes. People have also been urged to throw out any romaine lettuce they may already have in their homes.
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