By now you have probably heard about the E. coli outbreak that has led to a massive recall of romaine lettuce in the United States and Canada. In the US, 59 people have been infected, while in Canada 28 people have fallen ill from the outbreak. Investigators have narrowed down the source of the outbreak to romaine lettuce grown in the Central Coast region of California.
For anybody considering studying food safety, recalls such as this provide a useful reminder of why their work is so important. Let’s take a look at this latest outbreak and what it can teach us about food safety.
What Anybody Studying a Food Safety Diploma Should Know About E. Coli
Most strains of E. coli are actually completely harmless to humans, but a few can produce what is called the Shiga toxin, which is dangerous. The E. coli can colonize the intestinal wall, releasing the Shiga toxin as it does so. Within 3 to 4 days of consuming the E. coli, the infected person begins to experience symptoms, such as fever, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting.
The majority of people recover on their own within a week by resting and drinking lots of fluids However, about 5 to 10 percent of infected people develop a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney damage, decreased urinary frequency, and fatigue. This can lead to kidney failure and even death.
E. Coli Often Contaminates Lettuce by First Contaminating Irrigation Water
E. coli occurs naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry, and other animals. It often ends up getting onto romaine lettuce due to the water used to irrigate the lettuce being contaminated with animal waste. In other cases, the lettuce can become contaminated by birds flying overhead or by animals roaming around the fields. Lettuce can also become contaminated by food handlers, such as by plant workers and restaurant staff. That’s why food safety and food technology training is so important in the food services industry, since it can minimize the risk of bacteria being spread through improper handling techniques.
You may be wondering why lettuce in particular seems to be so susceptible to E. coli outbreaks. It is likely that E. coli actually ends up on a lot of other vegetables aside from lettuce, but those contaminated foods don’t cause frequent outbreaks. Why? Because lettuce is usually eaten raw, whereas many other vegetables are cooked before consumption and cooking kills the E. coli bacteria.
How to Use Safe Food Handling Practices to Protect Consumers from Illness
As you will learn in your food safety diploma, proper food safety techniques can reduce the spread of bacteria. In terms of the current outbreak, you should clean any refrigerator or surfaces that have come into contact with potentially contaminated lettuce. Keep in mind that washing romaine lettuce does not remove E. coli. Any lettuce that may be contaminated should simply be thrown out.
Are you interested in a career in food safety and technology?
Contact the Academy of Applied Pharmaceutical Sciences (AAPS) to learn more about our food technology diploma.