Monday, November 1, 2010

FOOD SMARTS: Consumers: Demand a ‘Call to Action’ With Latest Lettuce E. Coli 0145 Outbreak

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its state health partners have confirmed, “that the strain of E. coli O145 detected by the New York State Public Health Laboratory, Wadsworth Center, in Albany, in an unopened bag of shredded romaine lettuce distributed by Freshway Foods, matches the outbreak strain of E. coli O145.”

As of May 12, the outbreak is responsible for causing at least 23 cases (plus seven probable), of which three people are in “critical condition with potentially life threatening complications due to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS is a serious condition in which the body’s blood-clotting mechanisms are altered, causing blocked circulation or bleeding in the brain or kidneys.”  

The Ohio plant, Freshway Foods Inc., has voluntarily recalled chopped/shredded romaine lettuce products which might be contaminated. Freshway Foods, Inc. processes and distributes lettuce from small growers in large quantities to institutions and grocery stores. The recalled lettuce is under the brand names Freshway Foods and Imperial Sysco Brands. The lettuce has also been sold as ‘grab and go’ salads from Kroger, Giant Eagle, Marsh Grocery Stores and Ingles Markets. The tainted lettuce with a use-by-date of May 12 was sold in 23 states including Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. Freshway consumers have been asked to call Freshway Foods’ information desk at 888-361-7106 (8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Eastern Time, M-F) or visit their website for updates: For the complete Freshway Foods recall: 

Researching this outbreak has raised several questions and many concerns. First, let’s distinguish and understand what is E. coli 0145? There are six harmful E. coli strains which produce the Shiga toxin. The origin of this bacteria is fecal. We all should be familiar with the very famous Shiga-toxin producing E. coli strain called E. coli 0157:H7. It is found primarily on hamburger meat and was responsible for many outbreaks including 1994’s Jack in the Box which sickened seven hundred and caused four deaths.  What shocks me is that the USDA and food producers only test for this strain, E. coli 0157:H7 and does not test for other strains in our foods because the other strains are considered ‘adulterants’, a harmful additive by the FDA.

How does E. coli 0145 get on lettuce? Remembering that the source of E. coli 0145 is fecal matter, there are several ways feces can reach the lettuce:

  • Runoff water from a pasture where cattle are kept
  • Airborne particles from cattle farm via wind to the farm
  • Wild life feces
  • Humans harvesting the lettuce
  • Irrigation practices 
As of today, May 13, the origin of this outbreak is still being investigated. It looks like the source is being pinpointed to a specific farm in Yuma, Ariz. As of May 12, the Freshway Foods Inc. plant has been cleared by the FDA of the E. coli 0145. This confuses me. How can it be found in their bags of lettuce, but not be found in their plant? Even if the source is the farm, it has to get in the bag via the plant?  

It could have been prevented

The maddening situation is that it is possible this outbreak could have been prevented.  As consumers, there should be a ‘call to action’ for changes made by farmers and produce providers:

  • Farms should be a certain distance away from cattle farms so feces particles containing E. coli 0145 cannot contaminate produce via runoff or airborne particles.
  • Farmers should not be allowed to use unsafe waters mixed with sewage for crop irrigation.
  • Porta Pottys and portable handwashing stations should be required on all farms by law. It is incomprehensible that it is not required by law currently.
  • It should be mandatory that plants test each lot of produce for all six strains of E. coli before offering for sale.
As a consumer:

  • We should ask all of our vendors to confirm that they are buying from a plant that provides a guarantee and confirms they have third party audits. 
  • Always wash your produce; regardless if its labeled pre-washed.
  • Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods.
  • Wash hands properly with soap and water (minimum: 10 to 15 seconds) after using the bathroom, changing diapers, during and after visiting fairs, petting zoos, hospitals or nursing homes.
Juliet Bodinetz-Rich is the executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training and has over 25 years industry and training experience. Her team of instructors’ specialty is food safety and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. Metro Area., or 443-838-7561

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