A worker harvests romaine lettuce in Salinas, Calif on Aug. 16, 2007. Some restaurant chains have stopped serving dishes with romaine lettuce amid a deadly E. coli outbreak linked to the leafy vegetable.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Paul Sakuma

What you need to know: The lettuce-linked E. coli outbreak

What consumers should know about the romaine lettuce-linked E. coli outbreak

Since mid-November, dozens of people have become ill and two people have died in Canada and the U.S. due to infection with E. coli 0157:H7, which has been linked in this country to contaminated romaine lettuce. Here is a primer on E. coli and what consumers can do to avoid becoming sick:

What is E. coli? Escherichia coli bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals and are typically harmless. But infection with the O157:H7 strain, which produces a shiga toxin, can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Healthy adults usually recover within a week, but young children and older adults have an increased risk of developing a life-threatening type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

How does contamination occur? E. coli can be shed in the feces of cattle, poultry and other animals, polluting water used to irrigate crops and the soil where fruits and vegetables are grown. Leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, can become contaminated during and after harvest from handling, storing and being transported. An individual infected with E. coli also can transmit it to other people.

“This strain of E. coli causes more outbreaks than all other strains combined, so it’s the big problem,” said Herb Schellhorn, a microbiologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, who specializes in the study of E. coli and other water- and food-borne pathogens.

What’s the source of this outbreak? A Canadian Food Inspection Agency-led investigation has determined that romaine lettuce is at the heart of the E. coli outbreak in five eastern provinces, but the source of the produce has not yet been identified. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has concluded the E. coli involved in 17 cases in 13 states has a closely related genetic signature as the strain behind Canada’s 41 cases, but has not confirmed the food source. One person in Canada and one in the U.S. have died.

“This time of year, most of our lettuce will come from southern places … so if it’s affecting both countries, it may be from California or Mexico or other countries that produce romaine lettuce,” said Schellhorn. ”But it also can be contaminated during the processing by individuals who are infected or if there was fecal contamination introduced at some point in the distribution (process).”

He said the longer it takes to pin down the source of adulteration, the more difficult it will become over time, given that romaine is a perishable item.

“It’s not like it’s frozen and we can go into meat lockers and test food materials for contamination. Depending on how it was contaminated, if it was in one large place and it’s the water that was contaminated, that could have implications for other food materials that might have been exposed.”

While that ”doesn’t appear to be the case” with this outbreak, Schellhorn said E. coli. 0157:H7 is highly infectious and exposure to only a very small amount can cause disease.

What can consumers do? The Public Health Agency of Canada says on its website that thoroughly washing potentially contaminated romaine lettuce — or any other fresh produce — in water can remove the bacteria.

But Schellhorn suggests it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Not only does he advise not purchasing romaine lettuce currently on grocery store shelves, he suggests consumers toss out any they have in the fridge.

“It’s not worth taking a chance … Lettuce isn’t that expensive, it has a short shelf life anyway,” he said.

“I think I would just throw it out.”

Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

White Rock mayor-elect to focus on water, communication, OCP

Mayor-elect Darryl Walker says he doesn’t drink White Rock’s tap water

Early morning crash in Surrey on Sunday sends three to hospital

Traffic crash at 4 a.m. at 152nd and 88th Avenue. Police say intersection closed for “some time.”

Photos: Great Pumpkin Run takes place at White Rock waterfront

Families dressed in Halloween costumes for annual event

White Rock Computer Club teaches the way of the future

From cat memes to security, the club has been teaching internet for the past 20 years

THE DEFEAT: Tom Gill concedes to Doug McCallum in Surrey mayoral race

Only one Surrey First candidate, Linda Annis, has been elected to city council

SLIDESHOW: PAN’s week in pictures

Highlights from this week’s Peace Arch News

Fraser Valley man dead after head on crash in Okanagan

Accident occurred at about 7:35 a.m.

Kennedy Stewart challenged with building bridges as mayor of Vancouver: expert

The former NDP MP, who ran as an Independent, will lead 10 councillors divided across four parties

B.C. Youtuber to seal himself ‘in a jar’ to demonstrate impacts of climate change

Kurtis Baute wants to see how long he can last in a 1,000 cubic foot, air-tight greenhouse

One of Taiwan’s fastest trains derails, killing at least 18

The train was carrying more than 360 people

Scheer marks one-year countdown to federal election with campaign-style speech

Conservative Leader insists that it will be Justin Trudeau who ‘makes it personal’

Canada Post union announces rotating strikes in four Canadian cities

Mail will still be delivered but it will be delayed

Vancouver drag queens receive royal treatment during Kootenay Pride

Vancouver drag queens discuss the importance of Pride and growing acceptance of LGBTQ community

B.C. VIEWS: Residents have had enough of catering to squatters

Media myth of homeless victims offends those who know better

Most Read

l -->