What is E.Coli?

Dec 03, 2018

If you haven’t already heard, Canadians and Americans are being advised to steer clear of romaine lettuce. Restaurants are pulling menu items that include lettuce, and consumers are being told to throw it away if you have any in your fridge.

This is because of an E.Coli outbreak, one that actually might be related to a similar outbreak from December of 2017.

So what is E.Coli and why does it keep contaminating our vegetable crops? Read more to find out!

What is E.Coli

E.Coli, or Escherichia coli, is an abundant bacteria in our bodies. This bacteria has been studied for years, and when found in the intestines of animals, is completely harmless.

E.Coli comes in different strains. It is a specific strain that is pathogenic/dangerous. The harmful strain that leads to cramping, bloody diarrhea, and sometimes death, is E.Coli O157:H7. This strain of E.Coli is most commonly found in the intestines of bovine creatures like cows.

From Cow to Crop

So how does E.Coli, a bacteria found in the gut of an animal, reach our crops?

It basically comes down to carelessness and cross contamination. Carelessness can be traced back to the workers who are processing the lettuce. If they did not wash their hands or their work surfaces prior to handling the lettuce, then the chances of contaminating the lettuce increases.

Cross contamination can happen in a few other ways that are slightly out of human control. Where cows graze and subsequently leave manure can create opportunities for cross contamination. Either the manure is spread onto the crops as fertilizer, or when it rains the runoff leaks down into a field of crops.

Who/what is responsible?

99% of Canadian imported lettuce comes from the United States. Only a small portion of lettuce in Canada is grown here in greenhouses in Ontario and Quebec. In the United States, lettuce is primarily grown in California and Arizona.

In the past, there have been E.Coli outbreaks in other crops like spinach from the area of Yuma, Arizona. In 2006 the outbreak was lethal enough to prompt the United States FDA to create the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This act was enforced for large farms immediately, and will be enforced for smaller farms starting in 2020. Essentially they require farmers and processing plants to have all staff work with clean hands, and that the equipment be cleaned regularly.

Is that always followed? Evidently not.

For now, as consumers, the best we can do is buy from Canadian sources if possible. The contamination comes from the central coastal regions of the US, so anything that is labelled otherwise should be safe to eat.

If anything good has come of this most recent outbreak it is the proposal of labelling all lettuce crops with their place of origin. Giving consumers a chance to know where their food is coming from helps connect us to our food, the places and people who produce it for us.

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