With at least 23 people in Minnesota sickened with the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacterium, 8 of them hospitalized, and 1 child developing acute kidney failure, all from apparently eating bagged, “pre-washed” lettuce, one needs to ask if the convenience is worth the risk? According to the FDA, more than 245,000 bags of lettuce might be affected nationwide. An alert and recall has been launched. Some of the recalled lettuce has been found to be contaminated with the same E. coli that has sickened the 23 Minnesotans. Is the convenience worth the risk? What more needs to be done?
As maintained in a recent article in the Salinas Californian, 23 percent of all salads in the United States are bagged, and in 2004 bagged lettuce reached $4 billion in sales. This, despite numerous outbreaks traced to E. coli-contaminated produce in the last few years.
In October 2003, 13 residents of a California retirement center were sickened and 2 died after eating E. coli-contaminated “pre-washed” spinach. In September 2003, nearly 40 patrons of a California restaurant chain became ill after eating salads prepared with bagged, “pre-washed” lettuce. In July 2002, over 50 young women were stricken with E. coli at a dance camp after eating “pre-washed” lettuce, leaving several hospitalized, and 1 with life-long kidney damage. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that of 225 food-poisoning outbreaks from 1990 to 1998, nearly 20 percent (55 outbreaks) were linked to fresh fruits, vegetables or salads.
What about bagged, “pre-washed” lettuce and other fresh fruits and vegetables? Is “pre-washing” enough? Has this $4 billion industry done enough to protect consumers? Should consumers wash again the “pre- washed” product? Perhaps; however, in a study published in the January 2002 journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, washing lettuce, no matter how often, may not make the product safe. The study found it possible that lettuce can be contaminated “through transport of the pathogen into the plant by the root system.”
So, what should consumers do to protect themselves? What can the industry do to protect its customers? Research, more research — we need to find a way to make sure pathogenic E. coli stays out of products that are not cooked before eaten — like salads. We need to know if washing (repeatedly) is enough, or if other, more invasive procedures, are necessary. Is the convenience worth the risk? Research should tell us.