According to the CDC, more than 100 people across 23 states have been infected with a strain of E. coli from romaine lettuce harvested in California. This 2019 outbreak isn’t the first time retailers like Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Sam’s Club have had to rid their shelves of leafy greens, salads and packaged sushi rolls. In 2018, a similar romaine outbreak affected 53 people in 16 states. 31 of those patients required hospitalization (a very high percentage for an E. coli outbreak). Five people developed a type of life-threatening kidney failure (1).
So why do we hear about romaine, spinach and salads recalls in the news so often? What makes these types of produce susceptible to E. coli? Well, there are three main reasons. Learn what they are and how to take steps to protect yourself. (Bad news alert…sometimes even best practices aren’t enough!). We also cover the signs of E. coli infection and what to do if you suspect you bought a bad batch of romaine, or any at-risk food.
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What is E. Coli?
Often found living in the intestines of healthy animals and humans, most strains are actually harmless. But some increase the risk of becoming very sick and can be fatal. Certain populations are at greater risk, including young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Most contact occurs from contaminated water, unwashed raw vegetables and under-cooked meat.
Symptoms of E. Coli
Knowing what to look for enables people to seek help sooner. If you suspect an E. coli infection, seek medical attention immediately.
The main symptoms include extremely painful abdominal cramps and bloody or watery diarrhea lasting for days. If E. coli is treated with antibiotics, sometimes a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) develops. This affects the kidneys, causing them to shut down. Symptoms of HUS include little urine output, pale skin (due to anemia), lethargy, skin rash, and bruising easily (1). This requires hospitalized and supportive care like IV fluids, blood transfusions and kidney dialysis.
The Mayo Clinic States (2):
“To diagnose illness caused by E. coli infection, your doctor will send a sample of your stool to a laboratory to test for the presence of E. coli bacteria. The bacteria may be cultured to confirm the diagnosis and identify specific toxins, such as those produced by E. coli O157:H7.”
They recommend to avoid taking anti-diarrhea medication because it slows the system down, preventing the toxins from excreting. Antibiotics generally aren’t recommended because they can increase the risk of serious complications, namely HUS.
The best at home remedies include:
- Drink plenty of clear liquids to hydrate
- Consume bone broth and gelatin
- Avoid juice, caffeine and alcohol
- Try eating basic foods with low fiber like crackers, toast and rice
- Avoid fatty foods, dairy and highly seasoned foods
If you suspect you bought an infected batch of lettuce, either throw it away (even if you ate some of it and it didn’t make you sick), or return to a retailer for a refund.
There are three major reasons this type of produce is at high risk:
- Bacteria hides in crevices. Romaine and other leafy greens are difficult to clean. Bacteria get into crevices. In fact, rips and tears in lettuce can become breeding grounds for bacteria, so much so that they cannot be removed with water, soap or other disinfectants. Bacteria can actually produce biofilms that protect them from being destroyed. “It only takes 10 E. coli bacteria to make someone very sick” (3). These bacteria cluster and communicate with each other to protect themselves.
- Raw foods are vulnerable. Raw produce grows in nature. You can’t escape the facts of life on a farm and during harvesting. Animals and birds quite literally poop on things we eat. And these things spread because lettuce grown in one part of the country gets shipped all over to make mixed packaged salads. So even if you don’t buy another head of romaine again, but enjoy a southwest fiesta salad from a grab and go at the airport or your local grocery store, you could become infected.
- Easy contamination. Think about it…greens grow in the ground, surrounded by animals that excrete and water runoff from dirty irrigation and farms (more excrement). Regulations specify that buffer zones must separate concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and fields by several hundred feet. Prior to the 2018 outbreaks, that number was 400 feet. Currently set at 1,200 feet, some experts wonder if even that’s not enough to keep people safe.
How to Protect Yourself
- Heat your food. This is the definitive way to kill pathogens. However, most people don’t cook their salads, so take extra precaution with #2 below. We happen to have a grilled salad recipe that’s amazing if you do want to grill your romaine! But technically, to kill bacteria, food must reach 160 degrees F.
- Wash with Eat Cleaner. Rinsing just isn’t enough, and sometimes spreads bacteria to your sink unknowingly. This is our favorite product for not only protecting ourselves against contaminants, but also for preserving produce 5X longer! The only all natural, patented TRIPLE ACTION Fruit + Veggie Spray is tasteless, odorless and lab-tested up to 99.9% more effective than water in cleaning wax, pesticide residues and bacteria from commercially and organically grown produce (4). Watch the video below on how to clean your leafy greens. And save using code: CJLEAN15
- Yes…even organic! Just because it says organic doesn’t mean it’s immune to dirt and bacteria! Wash. It. All!
- Wash your hands! You can’t see bacteria, so you can’t possibly know what’s on your hands after touching your animals, hand rails, shopping carts, raw meat, or even just things around your own home.
- Cook to temp. Meat must read 160 degrees F throughout. Use a meat thermometer to ensure your meat is cooked through.
- Scrub. If a suspect product contaminated anything in your kitchen (fridge doors, drawers or surfaces) scrub them all thoroughly. If you tend to wash things in your sink, you might be cross contaminating produce to meat and meat to produce. Learn how to keep cutting boards safe and clean here. (Hint- you should have more than one cutting board and use your dishwasher to fully disinfect).
We at the 131 Method want to keep you healthy and safe! Comment below on your favorite safety hacks!