By: Alice Vo Edwards
The recent outbreak of E. coli that has hit 13 states in the US as well as Canada has many people wondering how often E. coli outbreaks have been linked to produce in the past. Between the years 1998 to 2016, the CDC has documented 587 total outbreaks of Escherichia, aka E. coli (yes, the CDC and E. coli are on a first-name basis – E. coli is short for Escherichia coli). This does not count outbreaks in 2017, including the most recent outbreak that has recorded cases between November and December, 2017.
Of the 587 outbreaks included in the CDC database, 12,994 illnesses are recorded, 2,129 people were hospitalized, and 38 people died. While this might seem like a large number, only a small percent of these outbreaks were related to produce.
Of all the 587 outbreaks, only 32 (5%) of those outbreaks have been tied conclusively back to a contaminated produce ingredient. Of these times, romaine lettuce or other terms relating to salad greens have featured predominantly. These 32 outbreaks also accounted for 659 (5%) of the reported illnesses, and the current outbreak is the first time that a produce-related E. coli outbreak has conclusively led to deaths. It is possible that other produce-related E. coli outbreaks could have led to death but were not able to be tracked back to produce as the particular contaminated ingredient, however.
As you can see from the table, the CDC reports are sometimes unclear about exactly what type of produce was involved. One case involved sprouts and a leafy green, so either could have been at fault. In 8 cases, the CDC simply reports the outbreak as being tied to a “leafy green.”
Looking at a list of only 32 outbreaks out of 587, you might think this is a small number. On the other hand, when you consider that 38 people died over 18 years from all the E. coli outbreaks from all sources, having two die from the most recent outbreak from romaine lettuce shows how deadly this new strain of E. coli really is. Regardless of how innocuous the low number of previous outbreaks might seem, the outbreaks are serious business and the related illness and hospitalizations significantly impacted the lives of many.
Outbreaks (That May Have Been) Related to Produce In the Past 5 Years
Here is a list of E. coli some of the more noteworthy outbreaks that were tied to non-meat contaminated ingredients in just the past 5 years:
In 2017, an E. coli outbreak was linked to SoyNut Butter. 32 people became ill with 12 hospitalizations across 12 states. It is debatable whether SoyNut Butter counts as a “produce,” however, it is an uncooked vegetarian food product that could still be on people’s home shelves, so it is included in this list. If you have any SoyNut Butter purchased in 2017, you should check the recall notice and make sure that your batch is safe.
In 2016, Alfalfa Sprouts produced by Jack & The Green Sprouts were the culprit of an E. coli outbreak. Only two states were affected, with 11 cases, and 2 hospitalizations.
In 2015, Chipotle Mexican Grill suffered an embarrassing chain of outbreaks with 55 people infected across 11 states. Thankfully, no one died. The CDC never identified exactly which ingredient or menu item was the culprit, but since high heat kills E. coli, there is potential that one of the produce ingredients used by the locations in the 11 affected states could have been the cause.
In 2014, raw clover sprouts were involved in an E. coli outbreak that affected 19 people in five states with no deaths. This outbreak was tied back to Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, LLC, in Idaho. They tied the problem to a particular batch of seeds.
2013 was a bad year for produce and E. coli. Both Ready-to-Eat salads and some frozen food products were found linked to E. coli outbreaks. Ready-to-eat salads sold at Trader Joe’s accounted for 33 cases across 4 states and 7 hospitalizations. Farm Rich Brand Frozen Food Products were held accountable for 35 cases across 19 states with 9 hospitalizations. Similar to the Chipotle Mexican Grill incident, while produce was likely an ingredient in some of these frozen food products, the CDC was not able to identify which ingredient within the food was a problem even after investigating multiple suppliers. It might have been the produce or another ingredient, or it could have been a problem with the packaging and unhygienic food handling in the factory. Rich Products Corporation stopped production at the plant that shipped the contaminated food to make food safety improvements to ensure that factory production systems were not at fault.
Should I Be Worried About Getting E. coli From Produce?
Do you worry about getting bit by a shark when you swim in the ocean? Facts are a funny thing. Statistically, the likelihood of getting E. coli from produce is very low, but so is the likelihood that swimming at a public ocean beach will get you bit by a shark. The times it does happen are so rare and startling, that they make headlines, receive a lot of publicity, and consequently many people are afraid to swim in the ocean. While the current E. coli outbreak is no reason to give up eating produce entirely, following the recommended safety precautions can ease your mind and minimize the likelihood even further that you or your family will become ill from E. coli. Keeping an eye on news posted on this site will also help keep you in the know about the latest foodborne illnesses so that you can be extra vigilant about any food groups that you should particularly watch out for.
Regular food safety precautions you should follow for produce and for other foods include:
- Washing your hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom, preparing food, or eating food. Even babies can carry coli so you should also wash your hands after changing diapers. After any contact with animals, even your own, you should wash your hands.
- Cook meat to at least 160°F and use a meat thermometer to ensure you’ve reached that temperature.
- Avoid swallowing water when swimming in lakes, ponds, or pools, including kiddie pools. Wash your hands before eating, even after having been “in the water” to remove any potential contaminants.
- If you cook raw meat, use bleach to disinfect counters, cutting boards, and utensils that have touched raw meat.