Opinion: Lettuce Romaine alert shows limits of our power over microbes



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Roman lettuce is seen on the market in Montreal on Thursday, November 22, 2018. Restaurants and grocery stores in Canada have not been officially instructed to withdraw their stocks of Roman lettuce, but a continuous outbreak of E. coli is leading many to do exactly that. .

Paul Chiasson / THE CANADIAN PRESS

On the trail of the latest E. coli alert with Romaine lettuce, you may have given up on caesar salads and discolored all potential life forms in your refrigerator's vegetable drawer. Next time, you can do the same.

Yes, it is a safe bet that there will be a next time.

It is wrong to believe that we can control microbial life, because microbes are everywhere and invisible. When food scares strike, we are painfully reminded that Food policies and public health codes are not sufficient to prevent such outbreaks. So, what should we do?

We need to change the way we think about how we live with microbes.

When outbreaks occur, government institutions often declare that they will seek the "root cause" to avoid repeated occurrences. They tend to look for contamination and lack of hygiene on farms, facilities and restaurants, in order to track a "zero zero" lettuce. But in the most recent outbreak, no common producer, supplier, distributor or brand of Romaine lettuce has been definitively identified.

In fact, the ground zero search for contaminated lettuce (or eggs or any other food) ignores a crucial advantage that bacteria have over humans: bacteria exchange DNA much more easily than humans. They thrive because they can constantly adapt to their environments, and persist because they can evolve faster than humans can enact policies.

The real root cause of alerts and food recalls may be our own idea that we have power over microbes and we can eliminate them whenever we want.

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We need to change the way we think about microbes as just good or bad entities. Tthinking about microbes as friendly / probiotic or hostile / pathogenic classifies them in relation to the human eater, when their potential to help or harm may be a matter of context. We can not control microbes, although we think we do with hand sanitizer, pasteurization and antibiotics. These practices are based on the failed logic of eliminating all microbes first and then leaving only the "good" alive. Every act of sterilization creates an opportunity for bacteria to mutate because if a person survives eradication, that bacterium passes their resistant genes in a process similar to that of a five-year-old. The firm conviction that our technologies will save us is arrogance, as we are inadvertently creating the conditions for bacterial resistance.

We need to rethink our place in this microbial world. We can subscribe to a popular myth that we are at the top of a proverbial food chain, but how quickly our primacy is undone when we come across something like undercooked mussels. We are not immune to their toxins, just as they are not immune to our technologies. We are bigger than they are, yes, but they outnumber us.

Of course, some species are pathogenic to humans, regardless of context. This leaves the burden of prevention on individual actions and also leaves out nuance. So, avoid Roman lettuce for now, continue washing your hands and take antibiotics as prescribed. But go a step further and think of microbes as more than just damages and not damages.

We can not live a life without microbes. The good news is that humans and microbes have been living together for millennia, though we do not think of them often or in detail. But it is precisely this "out of sight, out of mind" mentality that has put us in the confusion of rapid mutations, resistance, and need to "fight back." We do not need to fight them; we need to understand them better.

We need microbes for our health and physiology, as well as for our soil and sustainability. We need to stop thinking about how we have more power than in microbial life and consider how we relate to them in everyday life, from the base of the plate to the plate.

Maya Hey is a doctoral student in Communications and Public Academic Studies at Concordia University.

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