Ethics and E. Coli



The most recent bout of E. coli-infested romaine lettuce brought on a major sense of déjà vu; this is the third time that romaine lettuce has been recalled due to E. coli poisoning in the past year. Since E. coli is a bacterium that lives in animal intestines and is typically found in contaminated meat, the bacteria’s source in produce seems puzzling. And although there have been many speculations, the method by which the contamination spreads from animals to plants is still unknown. As E. coli once again makes victims of unsuspecting salad eaters, one cannot help but wonder why the food industry has not yet found a solution to this health crisis.

One idea is to simply halt the purchase of all romaine lettuce and switch to other lettuce crops, since romaine seems to be the repeating offending strain. However, this hurts the farms that are major producers of romaine lettuce, especially those whose lettuce is not contaminated. Additionally, this brief romaine recall has already led to drastic changes in the costs of other lettuces. The wholesale price of iceberg lettuce doubled from $20.85 a carton to a whopping $39.56 and rose to $45.65 shortly after the ban was lifted. This rise in market value is due to the previously high production of romaine lettuce, which used to occupy 38 percent of national lettuce sales, amounting to $1.6 billion. Eliminating romaine from the market has resulted in rising costs of additional kinds of lettuce to meet the increasing demand for leafy greens.

Rather than calling for an end to the sale of romaine, Canadian scientist Brett Finlay attempted to stop E. coli at its source: The intestines of cows. After discovering how bacteria latch on to the intestine, he developed an E. coli vaccine for cows. Finlay’s vaccine passed validity and safety tests and he received enough funding to begin producing the vaccine, a discovery that could have reduced the incidence of E. coli in the human population by 85 percent. Unfortunately, his ingenuity was not enough. Canadian cattle farmers rejected the idea, as the lack of monetary profit discouraged these farmers from taking on the added expense of the vaccines. The government likewise refused to pay for the vaccines, and production was forced to shut down.

This situation raises a serious ethical dilemma: Should the cattle farmers have sacrificed a percentage of their own income to possibly prevent the suffering of others? It’s easy to respond “yes!” and be appalled by their choice, but it’s much harder to stand in their shoes and willingly lose money to vaccinate all of their cows, when many of the cows would likely not have even spread E. coli in the first place. After all, of all of the food products produced on farms, many are not carrying E. coli. Even in the case of romaine lettuce, the contamination is often linked to a single growing region at a time. Furthermore, cows are not the only animals that spread E. coli, so should every farm animal get the vaccine? The feasibility of the vaccine aside, these factors are what make for such an interesting ethical and economic debate. One might wonder if it is truly worthwhile to devote such considerable funds and resources to a discovery that may help only a few people. It could also be argued that farmers do not have the funding to spare; the costs of the vaccines could deplete the resources needed to run the farms and attend to other safety concerns. If the blame does not fall on the farmers, then this responsibility should lie with the government, the role of which is to protect the people it governs.

Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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