The CDC estimates that 48 million people in the United States become sick with a foodborne illness each year. Some of the most common of these illnesses include norovirus, Salmonella, and E. coli. Each can result in a range of symptoms, from mild discomfort to serious, life-threatening illnesses. Although the coronavirus pandemic has worked to create a sense of heightened public health awareness, one of these common, yet preventable, foodborne illnesses—E. coli—is still on the rise.
What is E. coli and how common are infections?
According to the CDC, Escherichia coli (E. coli) are a large and diverse group of bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals. Most strains of the bacteria are harmless, but certain ones can make you sick, causing diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, or other illnesses.
When it comes to understanding the scale of the problem, upwards of 70,000 Americans are estimated to fall ill because of E. coli each year, thousands of whom require hospitalization. E. coli outbreaks have been occurring with regularity, and the number of cases are increasing instead of slowing down, in frequency. In November 2020 alone, there were three ongoing E.coli outbreaks in the United States, accounting for 56 infections, 23 hospitalizations, and one death. At least one of these outbreaks stemmed from a common target for the bacteria: Romaine lettuce. When it comes to E. coli-contaminated foods, fresh leafy greens such as romaine or spinach are the most common vehicles for E. coli that can pose serious risks to human health.
Leafy greens: an ideal target
Leafy greens are an easy target for E. coli for a number of reasons, the first being their popularity. The public recognition of the health value of consuming greater amounts of fresh leafy greens has correspondingly increased the production area of such produce to meet consumer demand. Crop production over wider areas makes tracking of contamination in the field more difficult and the greater consumption increases chances of eating contaminated leafy greens. This type of produce also grows low to the ground, increasing chances of exposing the edible, leafy portions of the lettuce to contaminated water. Finally, other vegetables are often cooked prior to consumption, killing the bacteria, whereas romaine and other leafy greens are often consumed raw.
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