Have you ever been woken up by something that you mistook in a sleep state as a dream, only to discover it was really happening? I had that very experience in the predawn hours of April 17, when my slumbering mind tricked me into thinking I was only dreaming about being repeatedly stabbed in the stomach. Once I snapped out of it, however, I quickly realized the agonizing gut-punches were no dream. The pain
was real and unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It persisted for the entire day, as well as the days that followed.
At the risk of giving away the punch line, I feel it’s
important to get right to it: I fell victim to the recent E. coli
O157:H7 outbreak related to romaine lettuce and made a
full recovery after a couple of weeks. While it’s certainly a
topic I’d prefer to have no firsthand knowledge of, I believe
my experience, as well as its backstory, is worth sharing.
I’d first heard about the outbreak April 13, when 35 people in 11 states were discovered to be infected by the same
strain of E. coli. The CDC had been tracking the outbreak
since mid-March and identified the culprit as chopped
romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Ariz., growing region. The
wheels for a full-blown outbreak were in motion. On April
17, my first symptoms hit, yet it still hadn’t occurred to me
that the outbreak and my illness were potentially linked. I
lumbered along, assuming it was a virus that would pass.
On April 19—day two of my illness—the reported head-count of those infected grew to 53 in 16 states. It was time
to get a news story readied for our website, and I nominated
myself for the assignment. After getting myself up to speed
on the latest information, I had an uneasy epiphany: My lingering symptoms were eerily similar to what I was writing
about, and I needed to get to a doctor.
During my initial examination, as I described my
visit as being possibly related to the E. coli outbreak, the
attending physician quickly dismissed my concerns while
urging me to adopt the “Whole 30” diet in the long term,
and a bland diet in the interim until my symptoms cleared.
The doctor failed to ask if I’d consumed romaine lettuce
in the past week or anything else related to a potential
foodborne illness. I left feeling bewildered, confused and
On April 20, it finally dawned on me: I’d eaten a
romaine-based salad eight days earlier from a fast-casual
chain. The next day, I paged an on-call doctor for a con-
sultation to escalate my concerns, including a request for
a diagnostic test, and was once again instructed to remain
on the restricted diet.
As I neared the one-week mark, I called my doctor’s
office again, this time insisting that I be tested and given
a formal diagnosis. Not surprisingly, the results were positive—as is my newfound belief that a disconnect exists with
the medical community and active foodborne outbreaks.
Realizing my case could be isolated, I’m nevertheless
convinced that had I not advocated to be tested nearly one
week after the first symptoms surfaced, my case would
have gone undetected amid an outbreak that has since
become the most widespread of any kind in a dozen years.
As calls from consumer advocacy groups mount for
leafy greens to be designated as a “high-risk” food, we
take a closer look at the latest efforts the fresh produce
industry, its leafy-greens cohorts, retailers and distributors are undertaking to continue improving the complexities of traceability in our “Mapping a Path Forward”
feature, which begins on Page 39.
While the recent outbreak has sparked a renewed conversation for better traceability alongside “opportunities
to improve communication every which way between the
government and the industry,” as Jennifer McEntire, VP of
food safety & technology for United Fresh, aptly notes, the
greatest challenge for the industry remains knowing how
to prevent it from happening again. In the interim, I believe
far more direct communication with the medical community must also play a role in the industry’s future game plan,
lest other cases like mine slip through the cracks.
On April 19—day two of my
illness—the reported head
count of those infected grew
to 53 in 16 states.”
VP Content, Grocery
@meg_major | firstname.lastname@example.org