by Marion Nestle
May 14 2010

Food (un)safety update: E. coli 0145 in Arizona lettuce and more

It’s deja vu all over again with the recent recall of bagged romaine lettuce contaminated with a toxic form of E. coli.  The lettuce came from a central wash-and-bag facility that sent products out to food service companies in several states making about 30 people sick so far.

The one new development is the strain of E. coli: 0145, not O157:H7.  Despite decades of worry that other STECs (Shiga Toxin-producing strains of E. coli) cause serious human illness, state health departments don’t routinely test for 0145.  Clearly, they need to.

The FDA and CDC are both working on this case. has a complete report on the situation to date.  It examines the possible source of 0145 in a three-part series:

Meanwhile, the USDA issued compliance guidelines for reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry.  That’s nice, but what about STECs?

And the GAO has just issued a new report, FDA Could Strengthen Oversight of Imported Food by Improving Enforcement and Seeking Additional Authorities (don’t you love those titles?).  The report focuses on weaknesses in FDA’s oversight of food imports. has a short but tough summary:

There are about 189,000 registered foreign sites where food is made for sale in the United States, according to the report. Of those, the FDA inspected just 153 in 2008…Meanwhile, the amount of food imported into the United States is increasing, and now accounts for 15 percent of the total food supply, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

What more evidence do we need for the urgency of passing food safety legislation?  Reminder: the Senate has been sitting on a food safety bill since the House passed it last August.  Apparently, this Congress this food safety can wait.  Tell that to the people who got sick from eating bagged romaine lettuce.

  • Anna

    I wonder that, if in addition to the possible cause of irricated with tainted water, the water used in the washing/processing/bagging could also be considered? This appears to have been neglected in the linked article.
    Also, I should hope that if this damages the Arizona lettuce industry, that they’ll reconsider their competeitive advantages and move away from the desert. (Also, I wish water politics in non-ag sectors would get hit. Shut down golf courses in ridiculous places like Vegas!)

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  • Joy


    The beat goes on. I wonder if the problem is more in the “bagged” and less in the “lettuce” part of the equation. Do you think that unpackaged produce poses less of a threat? As sunlight and air is often the best disinfectant, it would seem that the bacteria cannot survive without the moisture provided by the packaging.

  • Anthro


    I was thinking the same thing. I’ve never purchased bagged produce (including the little carrots or radishes) for this reason. It all looks anything but “fresh” to me. Actually I did buy the little carrots once, but when opened, they seemed a bit slimy and I threw them in the compost.

    In the last couple of years I have seen a trend at supermarkets–much more bagged produce and smaller and smaller space for unbagged produce. My response has been to get all my produce at the co-op or Whole Foods, both of which have maintained their volume of unbagged produce.

    So, Marion, do you think there is any merit in the suspicions of Joy and myself?

  • Erika

    Yuk. I think we all need to slow down and pay attention to who is growing our food. Lettuce in a plastic bag? Let’s stop for a second and think of how *weird* that actually is.

  • Sam
  • Having just read Joel Salatin’s ‘Everything I want to do is illegal’ I am not sure that additional food regulation is the answer in that it will increase the difficulty for small farmers to comply. Since it seems to me the biggest problems are always from these big corporate companies making *bagged* lettuce, etc, it would be really unfortunate if the small organic farm suffered as a result. (Even if those small farms did exhibit a fraction of the problems of these bigger places, they do not have near the reach to cause the kinds of problems)