Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)
Some romaine salad is safe to eat again. The FDA and the CDC announced on November 28 that they have reduced down the last E. coli outbreaks of lettuce grown in fields (not greenhouses) in California. This means that salad from Florida or from most local farms is probably safe to eat.
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What’s it about? about the lettuce salad?
There was another E. coli outburst in Romaine lettuce earlier this year, and there have been others earlier. There will likely be more in the future.
Vegetables, including lettuce, are an important source of food borne diseases. Some of the factors that work against the Romans here:
- Salad is not (usually) cooked before eating. Cooking kills bacteria, so raw vegetables are more risky.
- Romain and other greens are difficult to efficiently wash. You are likely to spread the bacteria to remove it.
- Salad requires a lot of water when it grows (each piece of lettuce contains very few nutrients and a lot of water). Pathogens may enter contaminated water.
- Romaine is very popular. Bald probably also has its outbreak, but more people eat romaine. It only means that eruptions are bigger and more noticeable.
Packaged salad vegetables have an additional problem: they are washed, often mixed with other farm vegetables. Personally, I give the bagged salad greens serious side eye, though I get lazy and use them sometimes.
Is the answer to buy locally?
Small local farms are large in many ways, but they are not insured against food borne diseases. The reason you never hear about major eruptions coming from small farms is simply that they are small . If a few get sick, there may not be enough data to track any food that made them sick. (Remember, most food poisoning reports are from people who were so sick that they needed to seek care. For each reported case, there are probably many more who flew under the radar.)
At present, we know there is an outbreak related to California Salads, so if you buy something from a Tennessee farm you can at least know that it is not involved in the outbreak in California. But is it safer in general? Probably not.
Can we blame for this policy?
Sort, but maybe not as you think.
A rumor is that the FDA, under President Trump, ceased to require farms to test their water for pathogens. The truth is that the water testing rules were proposed in 2011 and continue to be delayed. It would have come into force this year, but has been driven back to 2022, Wired reports.
So, water testing would be nice, but disease-causing bacteria may occur sometimes, never signing on tests, and are still present enough to make people sick. Testing alone will not stop salmon-borne outbreaks.
Sarah Taber, a researcher and food system strategist, noted on Twitter that many salad manufacturers are already doing this testing. But she says there are likely problems at several levels that make salad outbreaks likely to happen.
She points out that food safety requires well-trained staff, good practices and solid sick leave policies. “None of these things are consistent with a labor that is afraid, broken, has no access to care, no workplace negotiating power and is kept on desperate wages of the threat of being reported to ICE.”
Stopping immigration trends would probably make our food safer for all; other policies and practices that would benefit farm workers.
How do we know where our salad comes from?
It is not always noticed good enough to track, but it will change soon. When this outbreak was the first announcement, the warning was that Romaine was suspected. Florida Romain growers had to destroy thousands of pounds of perfect salad .
Fortunately, the FDA begins to require romaine to be marked with the place it was grown. Now they have thought about lettuce that made people sick, from some parts of California. (There is a list here for counties to avoid.) Various parts of the United States grow salads at different times; back when spring 2018 struck out, Yuma, Arizona, delivered the bulk of lettuce. Here, hope that better tracking can help outbreaks tracked faster.