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Food Safety: Expiration Dates, Recalls, and Romaine Lettuce in the 21st Century

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Fresh produce

Fresh produce

The Produce Problem

Do you re-wash your thrice-rinsed salad greens? I confess that I do. Every bit of produce that enters my kitchen receives a baptism before being subjected to the chopping board. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and even those “don’t-eat-the-skin fruits like squash and cantaloupe” are given a scrub and a rinse. Think about it. If the peel is “unsavory” and your knife blade pierces that skin to ultimately slice and dice the interior, haven’t you just moved bacteria from point A (skin) to point B (fleshy inside)?

You know that you need to exercise caution when handling raw meat. You’ve been warned that raw eggs should not be consumed by people who have fragile immune systems. And raw cookie dough is suspect because of uncooked flour in the mix. Of course, there is an easy remedy; the bacteria on meat, eggs, and flour are rendered safe when subjected to heat. Unfortunately, many of the fruits and vegetables that we consume are not given the same trial by fire and, despite our best effort, this can lead to serious, sometimes fatal consequences. That is one of the reasons why produce is recalled in the United States.

For example, in November 2018, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued a warning that all romaine lettuce in the United States was unfit to eat and should immediately be discarded. This warning came just two days before the Thanksgiving holiday. The warning was not only for heads of romaine but also for any hearts of romaine, romaine in salad wraps, salad mixes, and packages of precut lettuce that could potentially contain pieces of romaine lettuce. A similar warning was issued in November of 2019, once again notifying the public that a toxic strain of E. coli bacteria could be present on romaine lettuce from the Salinas, California, area.

Lettuce

Lettuce

What's Up With Romaine?

There are several basic classifications of lettuce—leaf lettuce, iceberg, Boston (or Bibb), loose-leaf (which includes red leaf), and romaine or Cos. Although most of us can grow lettuce in our home gardens, the majority of commercial production is from the Salinas Valley of California and Yuma, Arizona.

It’s been theorized that contaminated irrigation water is the culprit in the Salinas Valley; as a result, farmers are required to test agricultural water four times per year. However, the growing industry asserts that they already perform tests every month, and they have taken even more aggressive measures. Setbacks from septic systems have been increased, and the boundary between livestock and agricultural fields has been tripled. But the problem still exists. According to a report by the Washington Post, investigators are considering whether the structure of the romaine plant itself might be the problem, that the funnel-shaped head creates an environment that shelters and encourages the pathogen.

As reported by the Post:

The timing of the E.coli outbreaks is striking: They have often occurred late in the growing season for a given region, when crops are being rotated. That has drawn attention of experts who are searching for some common environmental explanation for the recurring outbreaks. Trevor Suslow, vice president of produce safety for the Produce Marketing Association, said the season for romaine lettuce ends in the fall in the Salinas Valley. That’s just weeks after neighboring fields are often prepped with manure or composting materials for spring crops. The possibility of E.coli drifting to the lettuce fields—through water or wind or other means—is an “absolute current focus right now to determine why these seasonal outbreaks have been happening.” Suslow said the weather can exacerbate problems with the contamination. “This is all happening at a time when water temperatures and humidity is high,” he said. “Those things are shown to favor survival and persistence of bacteria.”

You might be wondering, "If the only bad romaine is from the Salinas Valley, why does all romaine have to be thrown away?" The answer is simply that not all romaine lettuce is clearly labeled to show where it came from.

What Can We Do to Protect Ourselves?

There is no guaranteed, 100-percent method of protecting yourself and your family from foodborne contaminants, but there are several things you can do to reduce your risks:

  • As explained above, wash all produce before you use it. Even if you will be removing the peel/skin/outer shell, wash to reduce the chance of cross-contamination.
  • Use proper storage/refrigeration methods for all foods. A link to the USDA guidelines is here.
  • Never store cooked and uncooked foods in the same container. Likewise, never ever raw meat should be allowed to come into contact with other foods. This includes storing raw meat in its original packaging in the refrigerator. Packages can (and often do) leak, and raw meat juices will make you very ill!
  • You might be wondering about fruit and vegetable sprays and washes. Do they work? In a word, "no." Their effectiveness varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, so reliability cannot be guaranteed. An Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Food Safety at North Carolina State University recently spoke with Ayn Monique Klahre of TheKitchn.com. Click here for his recommendations.

What About Those Produce Stickers?

Since 1990, a standardized system of coding fresh produce has been established by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS), a global coalition of fruit and vegetable associations.

What do they mean? If you know how to crack the code, you can tell at a glance whether or not the product you are holding is organic and maybe (not always) if it has been genetically modified (more on that topic in a moment).

  • If there are only 4 digits, the produce was grown by “traditional” methods, with standard application methods of pesticides. For example, all traditionally grown bananas are coded 4011.
  • If there are 5 digits, and the first number is a 9, the food is organic. An organic banana will have the code 94011.
  • Genetically engineered or modified (GE or GMO) produce will begin with the number 8. This isn’t foolproof, however, because labeling is not mandatory.

What About Expiration Dates?

"Best Before" and “Use By” are perhaps the least understood phrases in the English language. What was formulated to provide an indicator of freshness sadly causes tens of thousands of pounds of good food to be needlessly discarded by the public.

And, guess what, the manufacturers don’t (and can’t) know for certain how long their products will remain safe to consume. There are just too many variables: how was the product stored in the warehouse, in transit to your grocery outlet, and allowed to sit in the backroom storage in the grocery store? And how was it handled once placed in your cart? Did you whisk it home immediately, or did it sit for several hours in the trunk of your car while you run errands? Manufacturers can do little more than offer their best guess on when their product will taste its best and be at its peak. The phrases “use by, sell by and best used by” can best be explained in this way:

  • Use by is the absolute last date that a product can be guaranteed to be of the best quality. This is not a safety date.
  • Sell by is the date that retailers need to remove the product from their shelves, assuming that when purchased, it will still be good and safe to eat for a week in your home.
  • Best if used by is the industry’s best guess of when the product will be of optimum quality. Chips might be stale after the “best” date but are certainly still edible and safe.

Eat By Date is a handy website that provides specifics on how long your favorite foods are safe to eat.

Pantry

Pantry

How You Store Your Food Is Important, Too

Pantry

  • Whether you have a kitchen shelf or drawer set aside for food storage or are lucky enough to have a large walk-in pantry, your storage area should be dry, dark, and cool (don't use a cupboard next to the oven). The optimum temperature range is 50 to 70 degrees F.
  • Ever since my house was invaded by ants (protein with your Frosted Flakes, anyone?) I have been fanatical about storing all of the dry goods in our pantry in sealable packaging. Glassware, tins, and Tupperware (or any generic plastic container) are all good options.

Refrigerator

  • Your refrigerator’s temperature should be between 34 and 40 degrees F.
  • Clean up spills as they happen.
  • Store all foods in air-tight containers.
  • To learn more about the safe refrigeration of foods and how long they can be refrigerated, click on this link from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Freezer

  • The temperature of your freezer should be set to 0 degrees F or below.
  • Follow your manufacturer's guidelines on the placement of foods. A well-stocked freezer will operate more efficiently, but care should be taken to allow for proper air circulation (this is especially important in frost-free freezers).
  • There are some "pantry" items that should be stored in the freezer, primarily because they have a high-fat content and, even if kept cool and dry, can turn rancid. Flour, nuts, wheat germ, and seeds should be kept in the freezer in a well-sealed labeled container.
  • Don't freeze foods that are going bad. Your freezer is not a time machine that will turn the clock back to when that dish was at its best.
  • Label everything with the name and date it was placed in the freezer.
  • Do you have more questions? Here is a fact sheet from the USDA.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Linda Lum