It’s hard to believe that eating your vegetables, just as your mother once told you to do, could leave you desperately ill and, in some cases, fighting for your life. But the recent E. coli outbreak associated with eating contaminated romaine lettuce has done just that.
This particular outbreak strain, E. coli O157:H7 is, in the words of the Public Health Agency of Canada, “more likely than other strains to cause severe illness.” People most at risk include young children, seniors and anyone who has a weakened immune system.
If you are still in possession of romaine lettuce in any form: whole or bagged romaine, Caesar salad kits, or any lettuce mixture containing romaine, throw all of it out immediately. And then, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, “properly wash and sanitize any containers or bins [including refrigerator drawers or bins] that have come in contact with romaine lettuce.” E. coli, after all, are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Not something you want lurking in your food or refrigerator.
This is just one of several similar lettuce and spinach E. coli illness outbreaks that have been reported across North America in the past year. Unless food safety regulations change, the risk will continue. The problem is we often don’t know about an outbreak until enough people fall ill to warrant any kind of investigation
Perhaps what our mothers should have told us was, “Eat your cooked vegetables,” since while thoroughly washing your lettuce will not safely eradicate all E. coli, adequate cooking is still the best way to kill most pathogenic organisms in food.
It’s clear that something has gone badly wrong in the supply chain. Once upon a time, we were advised that when visiting Mexico, India, China or many other parts of the world, we needed to be careful about drinking tap water and eating uncooked vegetables. Most of us never dreamed that we might one day face the same reality in Canada. The truth is, for large stretches of the year, much of our supermarket lettuce comes from the United States or elsewhere, where growers are not required to test the water they use to irrigate lettuce and other crops for pathogens such as E. coli. Unless there is a change in the American Food and Drug Administration’s regulations, fruits and vegetables imported into Canada from the United States will continue to pose a health risk.
Canadian produce is not immune to similar problems. Currently, there are guidelines in Canada for agricultural water uses that set out the maximum allowable levels for both specified chemicals and microbes (including coliforms), but according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, it should be noted “that these are guidelines and not legal standards.”
What can you do? For starters, buy locally from known suppliers wherever and whenever possible. Grow your own if you can. Let your member of Parliament and member of Provincial Parliament know that food safety matters and that we need legal standards for food safety. Visit the Canadian Government Food Policy website at www.canada.ca/en/campaign/food-policy.html and join the conversation about the new Food Policy for Canada.
And in the meantime, cook your veggies and toss any remaining romaine lettuce straight into the nearest garbage bin.
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Lindy Mechefske is the award-winning author of Out of Old Ontario Kitchens (2018), Sir John’s Table, and A Taste of Wintergreen. Contact her at lindymechefske.com.