Of the Earth: Good agricultural practices ‘the only line of defense’ against E. coli

  • Amanda Kinchla, a UMass Extension faculty member in the food science department, works in her lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For the Recorder/Wesley Blixt

  • BLIXT

For the Recorder
Published: 12/25/2018 3:00:05 PM

“Got E. coli?” I asked Amanda Kinchla as she opened the door to a refrigerator in her lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The fridge was full of colorful vials that would, thankfully, be hard to mistake for holiday leftovers.

I was being unnecessarily glib, given what I had just learned about the potential ravages of Escherichia coli O157:H57 — a bacterium that, in recent weeks, has sickened about 60 people in 15 states. Associated with human and animal feces, it can cause kidney failure and death.

The recent outbreak is thought to have originated on romaine lettuce, which then disappeared from menus and food shelves around the country, crippling the holiday Caesar salad scene. Kinchla, a food scientist with an otherwise keen sense of humor, wasn’t joking.

“Nope. E. coli’s in the freezer,” she responded. “Can’t go there.”

Kinchla is a UMass Extension faculty member in the food science department, an heir to the tradition of bringing university resources to the community. In an updated incarnation of that role, Kinchla splits her time between the lab, the classroom and the farm. She did her undergraduate work in the UMass Amherst food science department in the late 1990s.

“That means that I’m just old enough to remember Jack in the Box,” Kinchla said.

That 1992 to 1993 E. coli outbreak associated with undercooked meat at Jack in the Box restaurants killed four children. About 180 victims were left with permanent injuries, including kidney and brain damage.

Kinchla’s focus is produce. A self-described “food safety nerd,” she plays detective, analyst, interpreter, guide and teacher as she helps growers work with the new federal Produce Safety Rule, which establishes science-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption.

In the process, she has come to know many local growers, what they are growing and how produce is being handled, both in the field and after harvest. She also works with processors, including those at Franklin County Community Development Corporation’s Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, developing food safety approaches for bringing new products to market.

So what’s the problem with romaine, anyway, I asked? There have been three E. coli related recalls in the last 18 months. Does this mean we have to rethink eating Caesar salads altogether?

Not really, according to Kinchla. Romaine just happens to be especially popular lettuce, and when something goes wrong, it goes wrong big time. Advances in genetics have made contamination easier to track. In this case, the problem has been pinned on the Adams Bros. Farming in Santa Maria, Calif.

But Kinchla wants you to know that E. coli contamination can happen anywhere. You can’t wash it off, or even be sure, before the fact, that it’s there. Heat will kill E. coli, which is not an option for fresh vegetables. While washing vegetables to remove dirt is always a good idea, there is evidence that washing can drive bacteria like E. coli into the plant membranes. Orchards, like Clarkdale Farm in Deerfield, use ultraviolet light to protect cider, but that can’t be applied, in general, to produce, where every leaf would need to be subjected to the light.

“Let me be clear on this,” Kinchla said. “The only line of defense is good agricultural practices.” As luck would have it, Good Agricultural Practices is the title of a recently established set of safety protocols, audits and certifications, covering everything from using clean equipment and clean water, to transportation.

Also, she noted, while it’s good to know where your veggies come from, small and local doesn’t necessarily count for much.

“Local food is not necessarily safer,” she said. “Food safety is not a matter of big versus small.”

You can’t, she said, just click your heals three times and hope that E. coli O157:H57 will not be an issue. Everyone has to play by the Produce Safety Rule.

As I left Kinchla’s lab, I clicked my heals three times, just for the heck of it. That night, romaine was back in the stores and on the menu. To mark the occasion, I enjoyed a terrific Caesar salad.

Caesar Salad

Salad ingredients:

½ to ¾ cup croutons

1 head romaine lettuce, hearts and tender leaves only

Dressing ingredients:

1 to 2 tsp. finely chopped garlic

1 anchovy fillet, mashed

1 pinch course salt

2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice (or ½ lemon)

3 drops Worcestershire sauce

4 T extra-virgin olive oil

4 T (¼ cup) freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or Parmigiano Reggiano)

Coarsely ground black pepper

½ cup mayonnaise

In a large wooden salad bowl, add one-third of the dressing and toss with croutons until they’re well coated. Add the romaine lettuce pieces and the remaining dressing. Toss until coated.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.

 


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