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

Hundreds turn out to pay respects for Stettler homicide victim

Come and go reception held for James (Jim) Hulkovich

A Look Back – Stettler Independent Archive Files

1978 - Paragon Place, the 41-unit self contained seniors residence in Stettler officially opens

Stettler Trade Show hailed a success

Nearly 3,100 people took in the 38th annual event held over the weekend of April 13-15

WATCH: Central Albertan receives award for aiding RCMP officer in arrest

Lonnie Amundson, rugby player, tackled a fleeing suspect to help ailing officer

WATCH: ‘Battle of the Badges’ event raises money for Humboldt Broncos

Red Deerians get together at charity hockey tournament April 20th at Servus Arena

Producer, DJ Avicii found dead at 28

Swedish-born artist Tim Bergling, was found in Muscat, Oman

Trudeau ends 3-country tour with global reputation, alliances intact

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finds footing on the world stage after China and India controversies

Leafs’ Matthews has top-selling jersey, edging Crosby, McDavid: NHL

Austin Matthews jersey sales top Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid

Victims grant may miss needy parents due to eligibility rules: report

Only 29 of 50 applicants between 2013 and 2017 received the grant across Canada, a federal report says

Three suspects charged with 38 crimes after Wetaskiwin carjacking

RCMP Rural Crime Reduction Project starts strong in Wetaskiwin

4-20: Pot activists continue their fight beyond legalization

Cannabis activists say there is still a lot to fight for beyond legalization

Comey memos: Trump talks of jailed journalists and ‘hookers’

A 15 page document written by former FBI Director James Comey about dealings with Trump is released to press

Most Read


Weekly delivery plus unlimited digital access for $50.40 for 52 issues (must live within 95 kilometers of Stettler) Unlimited Digital Access for one year for $50.40 Prefer to have us call you? Click here and we’ll get back to you within one business day.