More than two weeks after the latest E. coli outbreak began, the CDC is still searching for its source. The areas affected by the outbreak as well as the number of those infected continues to grow, which is driving up concern across all sectors of the industry. No deaths have been reported, but ten of those infected have developed kidney failure. While investigators have narrowed down their search for a source to the Yuma region of Arizona, there is still quite a bit of work to be done to determine where the strain is coming from. Once they do, they will be able to enact nationwide recalls if necessary.
At time of writing, there are currently 98 people infected across 22 states. To make matters worse, those affected range from 1 year old to as old as 88. While the concern for human life is certainly tantamount, the economic effect outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and subsequent recalls can have can also be devastating.
When peanut butter was recalled due to a salmonella outbreak, big name brands certainly took a hit. But for Dough-to-go, a small cookie dough business in Seattle, the impact was ruinous. Not only was the company left with $7000 in reimbursement costs to their customers, but they had 2500 pounds of peanut butter in stock that was unusable. While that number may not be as high as what nationwide companies were faced with, their recovery was manageable while it was devastating to the small business.
“We’re the victim, too,” Dough-to-Go owner Betsy Sanders told local publication Seattle PI at the time. “We’ve done nothing wrong and we’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone’s safe.”
From shipping distributors to producers to mom and pop shops, the economic effect of foodborne illness is significant. It is estimated that E.coli and other illnesses costs the food industry $55.5 billion annually. When margins for farmers, restaurant owners and grocery stores are already razor thin, this large of a hit is difficult to swallow.
In this instance, even producers from outside Arizona are being affected. Product labels often do not have the growing region of produce listed, meaning all Romaine lettuce on shelves should be avoided. And until the source can be located, the problem will only continue to grow.
According to Michael Doyle, the Director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, often the cleaning processes that companies use when cleaning chopped lettuce for bagged salad mixes are ineffective at removing the e. coli bacteria. In an interview with Modern Farmer, Doyle explained that the harvesting process traps the bacteria inside the plant itself, so when the chlorine-wash that distributors use cleans the outside of the plant, the pathogens inside remain untouched.
Investigators are working around the clock to locate the source of the outbreak, and it will only be then that the cost can be estimated, both economic and personal, for this incident. In the meantime, the CDC cautions against buying romaine lettuce and steering towards other substitutes, especially in instances when origin cannot be determined. As e. coli infections take time to set in, symptoms that arise even a week or so after consuming lettuce should be treated seriously.