Slave labor. Fair trade. Organic. Free-range. Cruelty free. Non-GMO. Gluten free.
At least one of these terms has interested you in food ethics or production. These are all attention-grabbing, infographic-friendly terms and subjects.
They come with images of blue skies and green grass, maybe just a couple shades off from the default Windows wallpaper of rolling green hills. You can already imagine the lens flare and the smiling face holding two palmfuls of dirt – there may even be a sprout popping up from the middle.
But what comes to mind when you think about food safety? Stainless steel counters and people wearing hair nets? Lab coats? Florescent lights? Computer monitors displaying graphs and molecular structures?
Food safety simply isn’t sexy. In fact, anything that brings scientists to mind when it comes to food just doesn’t seem natural.
But then there’s an E. coli outbreak and the first question is always: how did this happen?
Romaine lettuce and E. coli: when is the right time to be concerned about food safety?
This isn’t to imply that organic romaine lettuce or free-range chickens are to blame. It’s important to care about how we impact the environment with something as ubiquitous as food production. It’s equally as important, however, to care about the standard operating procedures (SOPs) that keep that food safe for consumption.
In this most recent outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce, the first reported illnesses started at the end of March 2018, with an official statement from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released on April 10, 2018. And while on May 16, the CDC announced that “the last shipments of romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region were harvested on April 16,” the CDC declared the outbreak “appeared to be over” on June 28, 2018.
Are you still with me here? That’s:
- 79 days when consumers weren’t sure if it was safe to eat romaine lettuce
- at least 36 days that restaurants, suppliers, and grocers had to figure out an alternative source for their romaine lettuce
- over 79 days both the government and the farmers spent trying to determine the source of the outbreak
- 210 people were infected with that strain of E. coli in 36 states in those 79 days
Doesn’t that seem like a terribly ineffective process? Where is the outrage?
What seems most outrageous about the situation is that the E. coli wasn’t traced back to one specific farm lacking SOPs or over-looking a bad batch of lettuce. The strain of E. coli was found in the canal water, which feeds the whole growing region. According to the final update provided by the CDC,
“[The Food and Drug Administration] is continuing to investigate the outbreak to learn more about how the E. coli bacteria could have entered the water and ways this water could have contaminated romaine lettuce.”
Knowing where your food comes from is important. Having relationships with farmers and butchers can deepen our understanding of the food we consume.
But the industrialization of food isn’t an aspect of life we can ignore, and proper food safety practices are essential to our well-being. In fact, when practiced responsibly, we can enjoy produce in its freshest, most healthful state all year round. People all over the world can experience flavors from different countries and can even incorporate foreign flavors into local cuisines.