Recent E. coli outbreak impact on the Salad Bowl of the World

Romaine lettuce everywhere and not a bit to eat. For several months near the end of 2018, there was “no romaine lettuce to be found on campus” at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB), said Yvette Schoutens, A’viands Marketing Coordinator. Even if one is not a salad lover, it would have been difficult to miss news of the national recall of romaine lettuce due to the Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria contamination that accrued more than $100 billion lost to the industry. The Salinas Valley – the general geographical home of CSUMB, also known as the Salad Bowl of the World where the majority of the nation’s lettuce is grown – was hit hard.

Of greater importance than the negative economic impact on the industry and associated communities was the human and public health concern. Beginning October 2018 – at the close of the lettuce growing season in California – 62 individuals in 16 states became sick after eating romaine lettuce. Twenty-five people, in addition to the 29 affected in Canada, were hospitalized. Two individuals developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure.

E. coli outbreaks are nothing new. In April 2018, another lettuce associated E. coli outbreak resulted in 210 recorded illnesses in the U.S. with 96 hospitalizations and five deaths. The origin of this outbreak, however, was not California, but traced back to Yuma, Arizona. Going further back, a December 2017 outbreak in the U.S. and Canada was traced to the same related source as the recent Fall 2018 outbreak.

Given the seriousness of the risk factors, the FDA issued an advisory to destroy all romaine lettuce, impacting the entire industry including the farms that were just beginning their harvest. Prior to narrowing down the true origin of the outbreak, Monterey County was labeled as the culprit, devastating the local crop. Produce that remained in the fields were plowed under with the resultant waste of seeds, soil, water, compost and labor. Tons of lettuce already packaged were sent to landfills to be destroyed.

The Monterey Regional Waste Management District (MRWMD) landfill, close to Salinas Valley agriculture fields, received over 1 ton of produce. “We received 125 tons of packaged romaine lettuce from Nov. 27, 2018 to Dec. 6, 2018,” commented Angela Goebel, the public education and outreach specialist at the MRWMD. Given the nature and urgency of the massive recall – as well as the quantity of lettuce already harvested and ready for shipment at the close of the season – there was no time to unwrap produce already packaged.

“The lettuce was packaged in plastic bags and waxed cardboard boxes which the farms were not able to depackage for composting, so they opted to dispose of the material in the landfill,” continued Goebel. The other active landfill in Monterey County, the Johnson Canyon Landfill east of Gonzales, received hundreds of tons of romaine lettuce during the recall period. “They are now installing a depackaging machine in the near future to help separate plastic packaging from agricultural products they receive,” commented Goebel, “this will allow the organics to be composted.”

It was some time later that the FDA and CDC exonerated Monterey County as the culprit for contamination, and stated the cause of the outbreak was in reality a single Adam Bros. farm in Santa Barbara County which had the E. coli O157:H7 strain in sediment collected in its agricultural water reservoir.

Food recalls are not uncommon. To be forewarned is to be forearmed as the E. coli are bacteria that live naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals.

“Most E. coli are harmless and are actually an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract,” states the CDC on their website. “However, some E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, bloodstream infections and other illnesses (including death). The types of E. coli that can cause illness can be spread through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or people.”

Consumers are warned to beware of raw fruits and vegetables that have come in contact with feces from infected animals, as well as leafy greens grown in fields that may be contaminated by soil, water, animals or manure. Harmful bacteria can also contaminate leafy greens after harvest by improper handling, storage or transport, as well as at grocery stores, refrigerators and on contaminated counters and cutting boards used for seafood, raw meat and poultry.

The CDC lists several ways to avoid E. coli contamination, key points are summarized as follows:

  • Practice good hygiene, especially handwashing including before and after preparing and eating food.
  • Practice the four steps to food safety when preparing food: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
  • Cook meats thoroughly.
  • Prevent cross-contamination in areas used to prepare foods.
  • Don’t swallow water when swimming in pools, lakes, ponds or streams.

As of Jan. 7, there was no longer a recommendation for consumers to avoid romaine lettuce on the market as Dec. 4 was the last reported illness associated with the E. coli outbreak.

One positive outcome from the entire experience was the development and use by agriculture companies of a new (voluntary) labeling system that identifies the farm where the lettuce (and other produce) is produced so that any future outbreak does not result in the food waste that comes with the wholesale destruction of an entire harvest. “Forty percent of food is wasted in the United States on a regular basis,” commented Goebels, “which happens from farm production to stores to consumer fridges.”

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