Why are Leafy Greens Prone to E. coli Contamination?


The latest E. coli outbreak has impacted 25 states and sent nearly 200 people to the hospital.  Indications are that romaine lettuce is the culprit, but investigators are still trying to track down the source.  This is just one of a long list of outbreaks involving leafy greens that have occurred over the past few years, and these types of vegetables are the source in the majority of cases.  Here are a few reasons that may explain why leafy greens are more-susceptible to contamination than other crops.


Low to the Ground

Leafy greens grow low to the ground, and their leaves are more-likely to come into contact with bacteria in the soil than taller or non-leafy plants.  It’s important to note that bacteria does not always originate at the source.  While animals who are infected my leave droppings in soil in some cases, wind and rain can transport contaminated particles and deposit them as well.  In fact, some researchers believe that the majority of crops are exposed to E. coli via these avenues as opposed to it being a home-grown problem.


In any case, deposits on the soil can easily be picked up by the greens as they grow.  If they are not washed properly, these remnants can find their way into our kitchens and bellies.



Another source of contamination is when greens are processed before shipment.  Crops from different sources are combined, and one source can easily contaminate the rest.  Improper sanitation at these facilities can also cause bacteria to spread as well.  Again, it’s the leafy nature of these crops that allow the bacteria to be transported with relative ease.  It’s important to note that these facilities, as well as farms, are required to test samples as they move through the supply chain, but it’s impossible to catch them all.  Consequently, some crops will fall through the cracks, and this is how the majority of outbreaks occur.



Most leafy greens are washed at least once prior to being packaged or delivered to grocery stores.  However, this process is more for aesthetic purposes than sanitation.  While greens may look clean, there is a good chance that remnants from soil remain, and this is why it’s so important to thoroughly-rinse them before preparing and serving.  While origins of outbreaks can be traced to specific sources, people are ultimately responsible for contributing to their spread before they are contained.


Keep in mind that E. coli is ever-present in nature, and there’s only so much that growers and distributors can do on their end.  It’s also something that can impact our own crops in backyard gardens and homesteads as well.  Consequently, there’s little that can be done to prevent E. coli from showing up in our food.  However, proper handling and being vigilant with washing produce is our first and best line of defense against exposure.


Fortunately, most people who are infected with E. coli will make a full recovery within a week after symptoms develop.  However, a small percentage of individuals can become deathly ill if the infection spreads or causes secondary ones to develop.  Consequently, we should never take the danger associated with E. coli for granted.


It’s also important to remember that E. coli contamination can be present on all kinds of produce and meat products, not just leafy greens.  Make sure that you are familiar with safe handling techniques in order to reduce risk of exposure to initial as well as secondary contamination.  Following these simple steps can almost eliminate the risk of exposure, and it all starts with giving products a good rinse before preparing meals.



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