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Preventing E. coli Outbreaks Is Easier Than You Think

Food safety and technology expert Dr. Christine Bruhn explains the surprising reason that we don't use a widely-accepted technology to prevent food-borne illnesses such as the recent E. coli outbreak.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #505
image of farmer walking in lettuce field

If you live anywhere in North America, you’re aware that we recently had an outbreak of food-borne illnesses linked to romaine lettuce. On the day before the American Thanksgivig holiday, the CDC advised grocery stores and restaurants to stop selling or serving romaine lettuce and warned consumers to throw away any romaine that they may have had on hand.

A week later, the CDC announced that they had tracked the problem to lettuce grown in the Central Coast region of California and that romaine harvested elsewhere was safe to eat.  Although that seems like it would narrow things down quite a bit, the reality is that a huge percentage of the lettuce we eat in North America is grown in central California.

It may seem like these recalls are happening more and more frequently these days, which might give you the impression that our food system is breaking down somehow. But part of this is just that our systems for detecting and reporting outbreaks have gotten more sophisticated.

Growers, packers, and distributors also work very hard to prevent this from happening. Not only do they not want to be responsible for anyone getting sick, but these recalls are financially devastating for them. Revenues literally drop to zero overnight. It may take several weeks for the CDC to sound the all clear, and in that time, millions upon millions of pounds of lettuce will be destroyed. A grower can see an entire month’s incomeor morego up in smoke. And it can take years for sales of an affected commodity to rebound.

As a result, enormous resources have been invested and in many ways our food system is cleaner and safer than it’s ever been. However, food production has also become increasingly centralized. So a local problem can have national consequencesas we see with these outbreaks.

The irony of all this is that we have at our disposal a technology that could prevent these outbreaks. In 2008, following an E. coli outbreak affecting raw spinach, the USDA and FDA approved irradiation as a safe and effective way to kill harmful pathogens on raw spinach. Ten years and countless outbreaks later, however, irradiation is still not very widely used.

See also: Is Irradiated Food Safe?

In this week’s podcast, I spoke with Dr. Christine Bruhn of the University of California Davis's Food Science and Technology division. Dr. Bruhn has studied consumer attitudes toward food safety and technology and served as Director for the Center for Consumer Research and as an advisor to a number of nutrition and food technology organizations.

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