The United States is in the middle of a serious E. coli outbreak linked to one of the most common forms of leafy greens we all eat. It is amazing and unreal how far and fast this contamination has spread. Just a little over a month ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 17 cases of E. coli food poisoning which were under investigation. Since that time, there have been an additional 132 cases of E. coli food poisoning resulting in one death. So far, 29 states have confirmed romaine-related E. coli cases, California leading with 30 reported ill. In case you haven’t done the math, that’s more than half the states that make up the United States’ 50 states reporting E. coli contamination.
This has been labeled the worst E. coli outbreak since 2006, when 205 people became sick and five died from contaminated baby spinach. And it is slated to continue to grow.
The CDC has found that the origin of the contaminated romaine lettuce is Yuma, Arizona. But all of the growers and brands the lettuce was sold under are still pending investigation.
The good news is the growing season in Yuma is over. However, the tainted lettuce may still be on store shelves or inside consumers’ refrigerators. There may be an issue with a distributor or producer. As the source of the contamination is still a mystery, there may be other issues with the next growing seasons’ crops. Right now, we just don’t know.
But, we have more good news.
During this horrific E. coli outbreak, it is very important to know about E. coli and the ways to protect you and your family from it.
WHAT IS E. COLI?
The simple answer: Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a form of bacteria that naturally lives in the intestines of people and animals. You have it living in you right now! You may be wondering, “If it’s natural then how can it be harmful?” While some strains of E. coli are totally harmless, other strains like E. coli O157:H7 can make a person seriously ill and possibly result in death.
Of the harmful types, E. coli O157:H7 is the strain that is behind the latest romaine outbreak. It can cause intestinal infection by releasing a toxin called ‘Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC)’ into the lining of the intestine. E. coli O157:H7 can cause severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. It can also cause a potential life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) which can result in kidney failure.
HOW IS IT SPREAD?
It is spread through tiny amounts of feces, either human or animal, that has gotten into the food. It is often found in meats, unpasteurized milk and apple cider, raw vegetables, cheese and contaminated water. The bacteria can easily be spread through cross-contamination and person-to-person contact.
THROW AWAY THE CONTAMINATED PRODUCTS
During any outbreak or recall, if the CDC urges you throw away the contaminated product, please do it. While the CDC knows the region where the contaminated lettuce came from, most packaging labels do not list it on the packages. They are telling consumers to toss out any romaine lettuce that does not list the growing region. If you cannot confirm the source of the contaminated product, do not buy it or eat it. A great rule of thumb: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
We also recommend taking a picture of the product, its label, and its receipt, just in case you get sick and the health department needs that information for traceback investigations.
WASH AND SANITIZE
Hand washing is key to prevention and protection. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. This will stop E. coli from being passed from person to person. Do not handle food if you have diarrhea. Always wash raw fruits and vegetable thoroughly before cooking or cutting them. Lastly, make sure to sanitize food preparation areas, surfaces, and utensils.
DO NOT SHARE
If you know someone that has been infected with E. coli, do not share dishes, cutlery or glassware with them. Sanitize any area they have been in contact with using a disinfecting spray or solution. Wash their towels, face cloths, and bedding separately in hot water and bleach.
PROTECT THE CHILDREN
The symptoms of E. coli are the same in adults and children. If you spot any of the following symptoms in your children, please call the doctor immediately: abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, tiredness and fever. To prevent an infect child from spreading it to other children, please keep the little one home from daycare or school until cleared by his pediatrician. Make sure their bottoms are cleaned well and always wash hands afterwards. Teaching children the importance of regular handwashing is a great way to help combat the spreading of germs from person to person.
WAYS TO PROTECT FROM E. COLI EVERYDAY
- Cook meat to proper internal temperature.Ground beef (Hamburger) should be well-done, with no pink showing anywhere in the meat. It is important to use a meat thermometer to ensure that the meat is heated to at least 160°F at its thickest point.
- Drink pasteurized milk, juice, and cider.
- Wash raw produce thoroughly even though it won’t get rid of all E. coli. It will reduce the amounts of bacteria that may still be on the produce.
- Use hot soapy water on knives, countertops and cutting boards before and after they come into contact with fresh produce or raw meat.
- Keep raw food separate from cooked meat.
- Defrost meat in the refrigerator or microwave, not on the countertop.
THE END OF THE E. COLI OUTBREAK?
No one knows when this outbreak will end. Hopefully, the contaminated lettuce situation will be contained and eliminated soon. The CDC has issued warnings, but more and more people are getting sick. Consumers must do everything to protect themselves and their families from becoming contaminated and further spreading E. coli to other people. E. coli prevention should be an everyday practice, but it is more prevalent during this outbreak.
We at MakeFoodSafe will continue to post updates as more information becomes available.
By: Keeba Smith, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)