Romaine lettuce recalls over the last few years have put the romaine lettuce industry in the United States under a microscope. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned people about E. coli contamination of romaine lettuce that’s suspected to have come from the Salinas, California, growing region. So far, at least 138 people sick in 25 states. Thankfully, no deaths have been reported. The CDC said that people should not eat romaine lettuce from Salinas. And restaurants and other retailers should not sell romaine lettuce from Salinas until further notice.
The Yuma, Arizona, growing region has had several links to E. coli as well. The restaurant industry and wider public is understandably alarmed with this ongoing contamination trend. An E. coli infection can lead to severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting, and can last from five to seven days. Some people can experience a fever and headache. Some cases of E. coli infections are mild but others can be very serious and life-threatening. Given the serious nature of infection, it’s more important than ever for restaurant owners and managers to be proactive with food safety programs and procedures.
Of course you should work to protect your restaurant from contaminated lettuce every day, not just during a romaine lettuce recall. There are several steps you can take to protect your employees, customers and brand.
Much like beef and chicken, leafy greens like romaine lettuce can become contaminated during the manufacturing process. What makes them sometimes more dangerous is that they are consumed raw. We can cook out the contamination in chicken and beef. However, romaine lettuce and other leafy greens are often served without any cooking or kill step. This makes washing very important. Implementing a HACCP plan in your restaurant is a great way to help help you avoid outbreaks from uncooked menu items.
Is it necessary to wash lettuce that has already been “triple-washed”? Consumer reports did a study on this very topic. They found that even though the lettuce had been washed, it still contained bacteria. Many experts can’t agree for many different reasons. The “don’t re-wash camp” thinks the average consumer will contaminate the lettuce more by trying to wash it, while the “do wash camp” understands that there is a possibility for contamination at every step of the process.
Sure the manufacturer washed the lettuce three times before it was shipped out, but what happened after that? I’ve looked inside many shipping trucks and produce warehouses. They aren’t the most sanitary places on earth, and they certainly aren’t inspected as often as they should be. Produce can easily be contaminated by sitting on a dirty floor in the many warehouses, truck beds or even the very restaurant it will be served in.
It’s great that leafy green manufacturers are taking necessary steps to prevent contamination of their product, but can we really rely on them to keep their product safe? The best practice is to wash any bagged lettuce. Period.
I hope these how-to steps will make your job easier during a romaine lettuce recall. And, more importantly, I hope this information helps to keep your customers and employees safe! If you haven’t already, invest some time during 2020 in developing a food safety plan for your restaurant. If you have any questions or are feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’ve helped many restaurant owners and managers in the same position. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.