It is a common misconception that meats and eggs cause the majority of food poisoning cases. Did you know that leafy greens like kale, spinach, and lettuce are among the top culprits for foodborne illness? Recent outbreaks relating to leafy greens – like this year’s Dole Listeriosis Outbreak related to packaged prepared salads – have led food safety experts and consumers alike to become vigilant about leafy greens. We will examine the concerns surrounding leafy greens, what we know about the recent outbreaks and recalls relating to them, and provide methods on how to you can help keep you and your family safe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Study [For more information about e coli in greens or a Romaine lettuce e coli lawsuit call 866-517-9520].
In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a study of what typical food items that cause foodborne illnesses. The CDC analyzed statistics from outbreak-associated illnesses for the years of 1998–2008. That is an analysis of about 13,352 foodborne disease outbreaks, causing 271,974 illnesses, and that is the culmination of only what has actually been reported. In its study, the CDC identified, “[a]mong the 17 commodities, more illnesses were associated with leafy vegetables (2.2 million [22%]) than any other commodity.” Leafy vegetables beat out dairy, fruits, nuts, and even poultry. In the study, it was found that 46% of foodborne illnesses are caused by produce. The statistics became even more concerning as the study went on. Analysis shows that produce accounted for 38% of hospitalizations and 23% of deaths. Again, the statistics are staggering for a food previously thought to have been perfectly safe.
The study found that the most common microorganism was norovirus. The most likely cause of the contamination was through food handlers – from harvesters to food preparation personnel. Other contaminations in produce included Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, and others.
Over the last few years succeeding the CDC’s 2013 study, there have been additional outbreaks and recalls related to contamination in leafy greens. Below are a few as examples:
In January of 2016, Dole Fresh Vegetables, Inc. (Dole) issued a voluntary withdrawal of its Dole-branded and private label prepared packaged salad mixes. The initial recall notice mentioned that the recall was out of an abundance of caution and through a partnership with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC. The company identified products from its Springfield, Ohio plant were potentially compromised, of whom bore the letter “A” on their package tags. Shortly prior to the recall, the company ceased operations at the Springfield, Ohio plant, pending an investigation. The products had been sold in 23 states and some Canadian provinces.
The CDC, FDA, state health departments, and the Public Health Agency of Canada investigated the recall, which quickly escalated into a full-blown Listeria monocytogenes outbreak. Whole genome sequencing of the bacteria yielded results that showed several people had fallen ill with a related strain of Listeria monocytogenes found in Dole’s products. Specimens sent through the Pulsenet system between July of 2015 and January 31, 2016 expressed that at least 19 people had fallen ill with Listeriosis. One person from Michigan died of Listeriosis. Additional people in Canada had also fallen ill. The Ohio Department of Agriculture obtained samples of the same bacteria from Dole’s Field Greens packaged salad from a random retail location. The agency confirmed the product had been packaged at Dole’s Springfield, Ohio facility. Again, the bacteria whole genome mapping related to the reported illnesses.
In April of 2016, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) commenced its own criminal investigation into the outbreak. The DOJ’s investigation focused on whether or not Dole knew that its products were contaminated prior to distribution, but sent them out to retail anyway. During this time, Dole had recommenced production of the Springfield, Ohio facility, but did not publically announce what they did to remedy the contamination. Investigations appear to be ongoing.
The CDC is still actively investigating an outbreak of the parasite Cyclospora cayetanensis that has been possibly linked to cilantro – a small, leafy herb. At least 304 people have been identified to have contracted the parasite. Those stricken with the illness reside in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York (and New York City), Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington. They also have age ranges between 3 and 88 years. During the investigations, 207 victims confirmed to have not traveled outside of the United States.
Investigations currently conducted in Texas have definitively linked fresh cilantro from Puebla, Mexico to the illnesses. Over 57% of people interviewed in Texas purported to have eaten fresh cilantro traced to Puebla, Mexico within 2-14 days of becoming sick. There is not conclusive evidence to link the illnesses outside of Texas to the Puebla, Mexico cilantro. It is likely that the CDC will declare the Texas outbreak over soon, and will continue its investigations with the outside Texas state cases.
As Cyclospora cayetanensis is a parasite, not a bacterium, it is not tracked with Pulsenet. The CDC is currently working with other agencies to develop Advanced Molecular Detection Methods to identify different strains of the parasite. The agencies hope to use these methods to “fingerprint” the DNA of the parasite, alike to the whole genome sequencing currently conducted on bacteria.
The Latest Recall on Leafy Greens
This month, Osage Gardens, Inc. issued a recall on its micro-greens for potential contamination with Salmonella. The family-owned and operated company, based in New Castle, Colorado, notified the public that the potentially contaminated greens were distributed to Whole Foods stores in two states: Colorado and Kansas. The company packaged the products in 2 ounce clear plastic clamshell units bearing the UPC Code 709376615008 and Julian date codes from 266 to 279.
The recall comes after the FDA conducted a routine product sampling. The sampling yielded products in their finished form contained Salmonella bacteria. Osage Gardens, Inc. immediately complied with the FDA’s recommendations and ceased all production of the greens. The company is working with the FDA to investigate the source of the contamination. The CDC has not reported ay illnesses related to this recall as of the date of this post, and investigations are ongoing.
The Good News
Even though leafy greens can be contaminated, there are ways to reduce the risk of becoming ill. As with all produce, it is a good idea to wash it under running water for a few seconds and dry with a clean towel. Maintaining good hygiene habits, like washing your hands and routinely cleaning all food preparation surfaces, can also prevent foodborne illness from leafy greens.
If you or someone you love is showing signs or symptoms of foodborne illness after eating leafy green produce, it may be a good idea to seek medical attention.