Our View – Nothing’s safe, E. coli spreading to lettuce

So it’s been two weeks since the fatal E. coli spinach outbreak and unfortunately, things are not looking up as we’d hoped. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has lifted its warning against eating spinach, we now have a new leafy problem to deal with: lettuce. Yes, a popular brand of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley of central California has voluntarily recalled 8,500 cartons of it after tests found E. coli in the water used for irrigation.

If this trend continues, we may have to say “au revoir” to vegetables for good.

So far, company investigators haven’t found E. coli in the lettuce itself, but officials say “We’re just reacting to a water test only. We know there’s generic E. coli on it, but we’re not sure what that means. We’re being extra careful. This is precautionary.”

Good, they should be. Many officials have shared their opinion about the new outbreak. Karen Klonsky is an agricultural economist with the UC Davis cooperative extension. She says that affected lettuce crops have the potential to cause greater harm to the public and agriculture than the recent contamination of spinach. “Spinach is used by only 3 percent of households,” she said. “Lettuce is something else. About 50 percent of households eat it.” She has a point. While spinach is usually associated with few and far between health-conscious families, lettuce is part of any average American dinner.

But what, you ask, is E. coli, exactly? Well, it’s real name is Escherichia coli and it is a form of bacteria found in mammals, one strain out of hundreds causes illness in humans. It can be found in uncooked beef, un-pasteurized milk, juice, raw sprouts and of course, lettuce. Usually, if one has contracted the virus, symptoms include abdominal cramps, severe, bloody diarrhea and kidney failure, especially in the young or elderly whose immune systems are too weak to handle the virus.

What is frustrating about this whole situation is the fact that there is so much misinformation wandering around cyberspace, just waiting for some ignorant fool to read and misinterpret. Even when one asks a direct question, such as “Is it safe to eat spinach?” there’s no such thing as a simple yes or no answer.

Here is an example: “Based on where we are at this point of the investigation,” said David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA’s food safety division, “[spinach] is as safe as it was before this event.” Ok, and how safe was that? We need clear, precise answers in order to fully evaluate the situation and that type of vague response is not what we’re looking for.

It seems that all these outbreaks are coming from the same place: Salinas Valley. Why doesn’t someone go over there and disinfect the entire establishment? Why don’t we have a more efficient, less time consuming manner in which we deal with these potentially life-threatening situations?

This outbreak is not something we can just run away from. We need to face E. coli head on and we need to do it soon, before the deadly bacteria affects another popular vegetable, and we have nothing left to eat. Will the beloved cucumber unwillingly become E. coli’s next victim? Let’s hope not.

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