Wednesday, June 14, 2006

another reason to grow your own lettuce

I'm really gung-ho about growing our own lettuce in the cold frame. But, we still haven't fine-tuned the technique for getting a steady supply. Sometimes a seed failure or inattention of one kind or another causes a gap in the production. But we do like a salad with dinner.
I really like the convenience of bagged salad greens to fill in the gaps, but here is a frightening bit of information: after ground beef, most e-coli infections are caused by tainted bagged lettuce.

Over the last five years or so, food safety experts have noticed a real increase in the number of outbreaks that were traced back to fresh produce. Outbreaks of E. coli 0H157 are always a serious public health issue. E.coli can debilitate, it can kill.

The Food and Drug administration says there have been at least 19 food borne illness outbreaks linked to leafy greens, including raw spinach, since 1995 — 425 people have become seriously ill, and two have died.

E.coli comes from animal or, sometimes, human feces and is usually associated with undercooked ground beef. E.coli in beef is usually killed by thorough cooking, but if fresh lettuce is contaminated by E. coli, the person eating it is likely to get very sick.

Finding how E.coli is contaminating lettuce is a lot like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There are millions of acres of lettuce, and thousands of workers, processors and shippers involved in bringing salads to American tables.

Because unlike ground beef or unlike some other products, there is no heating step, so there are opportunities for contamination all the way from before the product is even planted, right up unto the consumer’s table. It could be something as simple as a deer walking through the field that contaminated a few heads or it could be from a flooding. Or it could have been an ill food worker.

How to protect yourself from E. coli in purchased lettuce

— Be sure you wash your hands before handling lettuce or any raw produce...especially if you have been in contact with any raw meat.
— Even though most of these bag salads are pre-washed and labeled “Ready to eat,” experts say it doesn’t hurt to wash it again.
— Keep that salad refrigerated.
— Check the expiration date before you eat it. Even if the lettuce looks good, you should know E.coli can grow quickly in greens that are deteriorating.

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