Lettuce Pray We Will Survive Our Meal


It’s the holidays, so you know what that means. To quote Oliver Twist, “Food, glorious food.” At this time of the year calorie counting goes out the window and all sorts of goodies go into the mouth. To put a damper on all this gastronomic delight is the realization that what goes in might make one very ill or even cause death. Yup! Eating right now is a dangerous activity. Your next meal could literally be the last supper for you.

In case you have had your nose buried in sales ads instead of the news, let me bring you up to speed. The FDA, mimicking MC Hammer, on November 20th told us “U Can’t Touch This.” What’s verboten? Romaine lettuce. For the second time in 2018, an E. coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce has led to an advisory not to eat that green stuff. Moreover, retailers were not to sell or serve romaine lettuce. If you happen to have a craving for Caesar salad (typically made with romaine lettuce), too bad so sad. Or, if you are President Trump, you serve Caesar salad on your Thanksgiving buffet but have it made with another type of lettuce. (Thanks for leading by example, Pres!)

Why the ban? In the most recent outbreak which began in October, illnesses resulting from consuming romaine lettuce were reported in twelve different states. Of the 43 documented cases, none were in Florida. Unsurprisingly, the most cases occurred in health-conscious California which is known as our country’s “Lettuce Capital”.

Actually, it’s really a shame that romaine had to be removed from grocery produce aisles and restaurant menus. Romaine lettuce, commonly known as “cos” lettuce to Brits, is the most nutrient-rich of all lettuce varieties. It is often contained in salad mixes, so the recent ban pretty much wiped out the availability of salads. Who cares? Well, most Americans do since the average American eats 25 pounds of lettuce a year.

On the bright side, late Monday the FDA announced that it was lifting its advisory against the eating of romaine lettuce. While the actual source of the outbreak has not been identified, it is believed to be somewhere in north or central California. Well, duh! Since California’s the lettuce capital, of course it would be the source. Fingering such a huge area is not really cracking the case. No common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand was identified. That’s not particularly helpful.

The November romaine lettuce advisory comes on the heels of a previous romaine lettuce recall back in April of this year.  The E. coli  outbreak then sickened 210 and killed five, but it was from a different strain of E. coli. Just great! There’s more than one strain of E. coli out there to lurk in our salad bowl.

For those of you who don’t have a Ph.D. in microbiology like my little sister does, let me fill you in on E. coli. It’s full name is Escherichia coli in recognition of German-Austrian pediatrician Theodor Escherich who in 1885 discovered this bacteria in the feces of healthy individuals. And, no, I have NO CLUE why he was looking at what’s in feces. Yuk!  E. coli aren’t just in feces. Oh, no. They are in the environment, foods, and the intestines of people and animals. Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) is the type most commonly associated with foodborne outbreaks.

All that E. coli stuff sounds pretty nasty. But if we simply avoid salads, we’ll be safe, right? Wrong! Forget asking “Where’s the beef?” You apparently should be asking, “What’s in the beef?” The nation’s largest beef processor, JBS USA, recently recalled about 100,000 pounds of ground beef for possible E. coli contamination. So hamburgers and salads are off the menu.

Well, we were safe eating turkey at Thanksgiving at least. Ha! You must not have heard about the turkey salmonella outbreak prior to Thanksgiving. USDA investigators discovered the same strain of turkey-related salmonella in 22 slaughtering facilities and seven processing establishments. The outbreak sicked 164 people in 35 states. Don’t gobble that turkey!

You are probably thinking that these are merely isolated cases, so there’s nothing to worry about. That’s an unsafe conclusion to reach. According to the Centers For Disease Control, 48 MILLION people get sick from foodborne illnesses annually. So you may literally be taking your health into your hand when you take a fork in hand. Forty-six percent  of these annual foodborne illnesses come from leafy veggies and other produce. Therefore, eating a “healthy” diet isn’t necessarily going to save you. In fact, it might kill you.

What’s a consumer to do? I have three practical suggestions. First, ignorance is NOT bliss. Keep up with the news to see what food(s) are suspected of causing current illnesses. Although this is not pleasant news, it is certainly a change of pace from the latest political nonsense. Second,  consider changing the blessing given over your meal. Sure, you can thank God for the food on your table, but it couldn’t hurt to ask that He spare you from being sickened or killed by eating it.

Finally, the best advice of all may be simply to change to a safer diet. As these foodborne illnesses arise mainly from leafy vegetables, produce, and meats, switch to eating foods which are not typically blamed for spreading such illnesses. While chocolate, pies, and cookies may cause a spread around your waste, eating them will not put you at risk like eating salad might. And what better time of the year to be consuming sweet treats? It will put you in the holiday spirit and make it truly “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Just WONDER-ing: Have you ever suffered from a foodborne illness? Do you worry about your food being safe?


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