An outbreak of E.coli O157 is currently affecting the UK. As of 13th July 2016, 151 confirmed cases have been diagnosed; 62 people have received hospital care and sadly 2 have died. Although this hasn’t made the headlines as much as you’d expect for such a massive outbreak. Perhaps because, as similar to the outbreaks from Europe linked to beansprouts and cucumbers, the exact cause of the outbreak has not yet been determined. Epidemiological evidence is directing Public Health England towards bags of prepared salad leaves although all microbiological testing has so far returned negative.
This just highlights the absolute importance of washing all salad, fruit and herbs before serving to a guest. Items like salad are grown close to the soil which is known to be a key source of pathogenic bacteria, washing produce thoroughly removes the soil and helps remove bacteria attached to the leaves or stems.
Bags of mixed salad leaves are still being sold from supermarket chillers and delivered to restaurants. Public Health England became aware of the outbreak at the beginning of June but as there is not a confirmed cause there is little that can be done.
For me though the controls at the source need to be effective at minimising and preventing the contamination of ready to eat food from bacteria such as E.coli O157 and failures in the system identified before product reaches the shelves. Yes! washing salad leaves and herbs reduces presence of soil and bacteria on the surface, but only if a salad wash chemical is used or the products are agitated then rinsed. Emptying bags of salad leaves into tepid tap water for 5 minutes is a recipe for cross contamination.
The E.coli outbreak in Wales in 2005 which caused a similar number of illnesses led to a government backed report and major reform to how we manage cross contamination in the UK. Once the cause of the outbreak is known will the safety of producers be under the spotlight or will it be forgotten in a fortnight with caterers being burdened with the responsibility that it’s OK for food to be delivered, to them, contaminated with E.coli but they could be prosecuted if it’s not removed during the washing stage and leads to confirmed illness?