A new study by researchers at the University of Houston found a significant disparity in the quality and safety of food available in low- versus high-income communities. The results may explain – at least in part – the high levels of gastrointestinal illness in predominantly Black urban neighborhoods.
The samples of varying lettuce brands based on availability were purchased from Houston area retail stores in five high-income and five low-income neighborhoods at three different times from June to December 2020. The stores were visited at the same time to avoid variability due to seasons and other environmental factors. The samples underwent Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction testing for pathogen contamination.
The results showed that lettuce purchased from full-service supermarkets in low-income communities in Houston was contaminated with dangerous disease-causing microorganisms, making it unsafe to consume.
While the results don’t identify the source of the problem in the supply chain, the researchers suggest there are likely issues with personal hygiene, cross contamination, and time and temperature abuse in stores in poorer areas, signaling a need for retail practices to be addressed in those communities.
“Overall, the results showed that populations living in food deserts and purchasing fresh greens from stores in low socioeconomic status (SES) areas are at a higher risk of contracting a foodborne illness. Romaine lettuce in low SES communities had higher levels of spoilage microorganisms, fecal contaminants, and pathogens. Where someone lives should not affect their access to safe, high quality, and nutritious foods,” the researchers wrote.
The full study, “Safety and Quality of Romain Lettuce Accessible to Low Socioeconomic Populations Living in Houston, TX,” was published on the website of the Journal of Food Protection. It may be accessed here.