Does Pre-Cut Lettuce Pose Food Poisoning Risk?

The ongoing <"">E. coli outbreak linked to tainted romaine lettuce is posing questions regarding the risks with pre-cut produce, such as lettuce, versus whole vegetables, reports The Washington Post. This particular outbreak involved cut and bagged romaine lettuce and is not the first such outbreak of its kind, noted the Washington Post.

Since March 1, 23 people in four states have fallen ill as a result of the tainted lettuce. An additional seven potential cases are being investigated; 23 states and the District of Columbia have been impacted; there have also been 12 hospitalizations, with three people developing kidney failure, said The Washington Post, citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most of the lettuce involved in the related recalls was sold to food service establishments; the recall does not affect bagged lettuce in the grocery store. Meanwhile, the FDA is investigating a Yuma, Arizona farm where the romaine lettuce was harvested and is attempting to determine the point in the supply chain in which the contamination occurred. The agency declined to identify the farm.

Health regulators previously confirmed that romaine lettuce is responsible for the outbreak and that E. coli O145 is the strain involved. The contamination was detected by the New York State Public Health Laboratory, Wadsworth Center, in Albany, in an unopened bag of shredded romaine lettuce distributed by Freshway Foods of Sidney, Ohio.

Because leafy greens linked to outbreaks do not always carry specifications as to whether the produce is whole or bagged, it is challenging to determine if pre-cut lettuce is or is not implicated in more outbreaks, said The Washington Post. Regardless, a variety of recent and widespread outbreaks involving a number of states do involve pre-cut lettuce, noted The Washington Post. For instance, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in 2006 was linked to Dole bagged spinach, said The Washington Post; 238 people fell ill and five people died.

James Gorny, senior adviser for FDA produce safety said, “When you buy a whole head of lettuce, you have no idea what the brand name is, or who the grower is…. So tracing it back is that much harder,” quoted The Washington Post. While Gorny believes that being pre-cut does not make produce more dangerous, others disagree. “I’ve been avoiding bagged lettuce for years,” said Michael Doyle, a nationally known microbiologist who also directs the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, reported The Washington Post.

Most fresh-cut produce processors remove the lettuce’s outer leaves, coring the heads in the field, which enables cutting instruments to come in contact with soil, causing contamination to spread from dirt to crop, said Doyle, wrote The Washington Post, which noted that in farming areas near cattle, soil can turn up with E. coli.

A study published in 2009 in the Journal of Food Protection, Doyle and colleagues looked at contaminated coring devices with soil that contained E. coli O157:H7, revealing how the pathogen spread from equipment to produce. Washing the produce with a chlorine spray did not kill off sufficient bacteria, noted the Washington Post. “In a processing plant, you’d have to have walls and clean floors,” Doyle said. “But here, they’re starting it right out in the dirt. It’s a very hazardous practice,” reported The Washington Post.

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