By Ashley Fuoco Antonelli, Contributing Editor
Last week, I was perusing news headlines while enjoying my green, leafy lunch when one stopped my fork in its track: "31 more sick in romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak." The recent E. coli outbreak affecting romaine lettuce—the main ingredient in my lunch—had expanded, sparking my concern about, and my professional interest in, foodborne illnesses.
After some digging, I found that E. coli seems to be increasingly invading our produce supply and, as a result, our bodies.
Why is that? Let's take a closer look.
Why E. coli seems to be increasingly creeping into our food—and especially our lettuce
CDC estimates that 48 million people get food poisoning each year, and of those, about 128,000 are hospitalized and about 3,000 die. CDC in 2015 surmised that close to 50% of all foodborne illnesses come from produce, such as lettuce, and in 2013 the agency found that "leafy vegetables" caused nearly 25% of all food poisoning cases that occurred from 1998 to 2008—"more than any other food product, including dairy and poultry," Vox's Julia Belluz writes.
According to Belluz, there are a "number" of reasons why more U.S. residents are getting E. coli from produce. For example, Belluz writes that, according to Modern Farmer, "some of the processes farms have in place to clean salads actually trap bacteria in the plants, making them impossible to wash away." And as Michele Jay-Russell, a food safety researcher at the University of California-Davis, told Belluz, E. coli contamination can occur "all along the spectrum of growing plants," explaining, "There can be animal intrusions or inputs like contaminated water sources that bring the bacteria into the field."
But experts say the biggest factor isn't that E. coli is infecting our produce more often—it's that we're eating more produce in general, which increases our risk of exposure. In addition, Jay-Russell told Belluz that people typically eat produce raw, meaning "there's no kill step for the consumer to cook off the bacteria that might be lurking in our food."
Further, Bill Marler, one of the leading food safety attorneys in the United States, also told Belluz that U.S. residents' increasing tendency to purchase precut and packaged greens could be contributing to the rise in food poisoning from the products. "Mass-produced chopped, bagged lettuce that gets shipped around the [United States] amplifies the risk of poisoning," he said, because "bacteria has a chance to grow" and spread during the process in which the lettuce is chopped, mixed, and packaged.
How the current outbreak happened
CDC data show that, as of Friday, the current E. coli outbreak tied to romaine lettuce has affected 98 people throughout 22 states, and 46 of those individuals have been hospitalized. According to the New York Times' Niraj Chokshi, the latest update makes this the largest multistate foodborne E. coli outbreak since 2006.
Most of those who were infected became ill after eating at restaurants that used precut, packaged lettuce. Cases of the infection have been reported in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. CDC said more cases could be emerge, as "illnesses that occurred in the last two to three weeks might not yet be reported because of the time between when a person becomes ill with E. coli and when the illness is reported to CDC."
Although federal regulators haven't yet identified the source of the outbreak, CDC is warning individuals not to eat lettuce that could be from the Yuma, Arizona area—"where most lettuce is grown during the winter season," Caitlin Dewey writes for the Washington Post's "Wonkblog." CDC also said individuals should avoid eating lettuce when they don't known from where the greens originated.
What to do if you think you've been exposed
According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of E. coli infection include cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, and—in severe cases—kidney failure and potentially death. Mayo Clinic notes that symptoms of E. coli infection "typically begin three or four days after exposure to the bacteria, though you may become ill as soon as one day after to more than a week later." People who think they've been infected with E. coli see a health care providers if the symptoms are "persistent" or "severe," according to Mayo Clinic.
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