How Consumers Are Reacting to E. coli Outbreak

How Consumers Are Reacting to E. coli Outbreak

Romaine-upright-on-white-backgroundThe slowly expanding E. coli O157: H7 outbreak, stemming from Yuma-grown romaine, has kept the story on front pages for several weeks. Restaurants and grocery stores are reacting in two main ways: posting assurances that all romaine sold in the store is not from Yuma or taking romaine off their shelves altogether.


Now a California citizen has died as a result of the outbreak. A natural concern has spurred reporters to dig into what causes outbreaks and to make suggestions on how to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Naturally, some suggestions are stronger than others. Here’s a brief review of what’s being discussed:

A call for new technology. Forbes takes a look at how past recalls and outbreaks have ruined businesses and growing operations. It calls for more protected agriculture to help curb opportunities for infection. Acknowledging that vertical farming is expensive and years from being a common growing method, Forbes pushes IBM’s new blockchain technology.

Reject All Romaine. Consumer Reports, which called for consumers to dump romaine during the first E. coli outbreak of the 2017-18 growing season, again warns its readers to avoid all romaine, not just the Yuma-sourced.

Identifying one of the Yuma Farms. The New York Times identifies the farm that grew the whole head romaine that sickened prisoners at a correctional facility in Alaska: Harrison Farms. It also explains that investigating E. coli contamination is difficult, due to the time lapse between lettuce being shipped and when an illness is reported.

How DNA may help in the E. coli hunt. Chicago Tribune takes a look at how DNA techniques previously used to trace sources of listeria outbreaks will now be used for E. coli and salmonella.

Explaining how food safety works. A Phoenix-based paper, AZ Central, gives consumers a fair depiction of how food safety protocols work and how current rules came to be. It also points out that the system is not foolproof, as a few different outbreaks have been traced back to certified operations.

Raw food will always carry a risk. The Washington Post asks the question: “Why E. coli Keeps Getting into Our Lettuce?” It explains that raw foods do not go through a kill step, so pathogens can survive postharvest procedures designed to keep food safe.

Within the industry, Food Safety News ran an editorial calling for the return of Microbiological Data Program (MDP).

“The MDP only cost taxpayers about $5 million. The New York Times called it ‘a tiny program that matters.’ But the produce industry hated the MDP, and it apparently had a significant hand in killing it,” says Editor-in-Chief Dan Flynn. “The MDP murder remains unsolved. Big produce did not like it because the testing occurred as fruits and vegetables were being picked and shipped. A positive MDP test could throw a wrench in the salad bowl. MDP did not have ‘predictive value,’ according to the rap on it. But MDP scored for consumers. It caught a rare strain of hepatitis A, preventing its entry into the U.S. from the Middle East and North Africa; and it kept a nasty parasite in Mexico from crossing into the U.S.”



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Matt says:

I know a better way. Put food traceability information on EVERY bag/box. Provide a central registry of growing locations. This would make it VERY easy to trace produce through it’s chain of custody. Each point it passes through would need to stamp a box, etc.

Even better is to buy local from farms you can actually visit or at least know where it is grown. Summer is coming for most of the middle and northern states. With that comes the opportunity to buy locally grown produce. Encourge your grocers to buy local when possible. This all encourages more local production and with it, reduces the exposure risk of the whole country.

Matt says:

Let us also not forget that this pathogen follows a fecal-oral route of contamination. This means either contaminated water or direct contamination. Were talking poo people. Either from farm animals/manure (Primarily Cattle/Turkey) or from humans who don’t properly wash their hands or from improper waste water disposal.

The fact that we DO NOT see this in northern states nearly as much as we do from sourthern states suggests that labor might be source of contamination. No one wants to say it, but it is what most farmers are thinking. This is coming from unskilled labor who are not as festidious as the should be about cleanliness. The 2nd most possible source is from nearby feed lots or from the use of manure as fertilizer from these same lots.

Outside of those two sources, it is extemely unlikely that this would be a problem. Almost all lettuce is washed in chlorinated/sanitizer containing water. This means the contamination is either happeneing during harvest or in the pack shed. Both of those involve people.

The cantaloupe outbreak was from feedlot beef. Trucks carrying waste melon to feedlots failed to be properly cleaned before returning to the pack shed for reloading. This brought contamination from the feedlot on the wheels. I don’t believe for one second it was wild deer. Either something like this is happening or a sick worker is using the toilet and not washing hands properly (highly likely this is the source).

Southern Tier Farmer says:

As a small farmer in the north I can only provide so much lettuce during our growing season and people want it year round. I think if anyone was to look into these contamination issues they would agree with Matt as I do. I think the problem is who is handling the produce. I believe almost everyone in this country is familiar with indoor plumbing. This is not necessarily the case in other countries where the bathroom is a local shack or ditch or field. I know some cooperative extensions actually make available signs telling field workers not to go to the bathroom IN the field. There are also signs giving instructions on the use of toilet paper. If you think other countries have supermarkets like ours with a dozen brands of toilet paper, think again. I think we all know where most of the contamination comes from.