As the latest E. coli outbreak in lettuce continues to spread across the U.S., I have to wonder why there is no way to prevent this. Or is there?
According to CNN, there have been 34 food-borne illness outbreaks involving leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach in the past 15 years. This includes a 2006 outbreak linked to contaminated spinach that sickened more than 200 people. In the latest lettuce-linked outbreak, 23 people have been confirmed sick with E. coli 0145, a rare strain of the bacteria traced to lettuce farm in Yuma, Arizona. Some of the sickened people have potentially life-threatening complications.
After so many repeated outbreaks, what has been done to prevent this from happening again? Apparently NOTHING! Consumers just have to hope that the growers and handlers will take the proper steps to avoid contamination, such as correct irrigation practices and frequent hand washing . I don’t know about you, but I don’t have much faith that the responsible parties will always properly implement these precautions and that the contamination will never happen again.
So I said to myself, “In this day and age, with all the technology we have available, why isn’t there a simple way to instantly detect the presence of e coli bacteria so that we can avoid eating contaminated lettuce?” And guess what? After a little research, I found out that there is!
That’s right. Researchers at the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) in California have developed a simple, inexpensive sensor that instantly changes color from blue to red when it detects the presence of the E. coli bacteria. They claim the sensor can be made at a nominal cost, and can be easily incorporated into product packaging such as bottle caps or container lids.
Imagine opening a bag of lettuce and finding a sensor that has turned red. You would immediately know that you have a contaminated product (and, obviously, you wouldn’t eat it and get sick). Think how many lives this simple innovation could positively impact!
Okay, so why isn’t this fabulous technology being used? Well, here is where things gets really mind-boggling. Believe it or not, this sensor was developed way back in 1996! Yes, that’s right – the technology has been available for licensing for 14 years! And not one company has pursued it. Dole? FreshExpress? Anyone? Certainly a mega billion dollar company like Dole could afford to commercialize this sensor and use it to protect consumers .
Think of the consumer confidence and the good will this would garner for the company that uses it first. Not to mention the competitive advantage. If Dole’s prepackaged lettuce had the E. coli sensor and the other brands did not, which one would you buy?
Why, then, have they not pursued it? Hmmm. I wonder if companies are more concerned about the prospect of lawsuits than they are about protecting consumers. ..
After further research, I discovered a small company that attempted to market a similar (although not as instantaneous) screening test for E. coli and salmonella to the food service industry in 2007. That company is now defunct. According to online comments from an executive at the company, the product received a less-than-warm reception from the food service industry. This completely perplexes me. The company also tried to market it to grocery chains as a consumer test-strip product, but, apparently, grocers were worried about consumers taking the test strips and heading over to the meat and produce sections. How sad is that?
C’mon, big produce companies. Step up to the plate and put the safety of consumers first. Call the Berkeley Lab and do whatever you need to do to get the E. coli sensors on all produce packaging, before another outbreak occurs! You will be heralded as a hero by consumers far and wide!