Romaine lettuce has been linked to a multi-state outbreak of a nasty strain of E. coli, sickening 65. Here's what you can do to minimize your risk.
- At least 65 people have gotten sick across the US and Canada after eating romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
- No deaths have been reported, but one person developed kidney failure.
- The CDC says it's now okay to eat romaine, as long as you can confirm it wasn't grown in California.
Good news, salad lovers. If you can confirm that your romaine lettuce didn't come from a California farm, then munch on.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is revising its earlier advice that all romaine — including the pre-chopped variety, whole heads, and hearts — should be avoided. CDC investigators believe they've found the source of contamination linked to a multistate outbreak of a nasty strain of E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and kidney failure. The culprit lies somewhere in the central coast growing region of California, which includes northern and central California.
The only problem for lettuce fans now is figuring out where their greens come from — still no easy task.
"Romaine lettuce products will be labeled with a harvest location by region," the CDC promised on its website, adding "it may take some time before these labels are available."
The labeling, which the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said will include a growing region and harvest date, is still voluntary. So if you can't figure out where your romaine was grown, don't eat it.
At least 65 people across 12 US states and Canada developed E. coli infections in October, and at least 16 individuals in the US had to be rushed to the hospital. So far, one victim of the E. coli outbreak developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome, but no deaths have been reported.
Because it typically takes a few weeks for new illnesses to be reported to the CDC, the agency originally told everyone not to eat romaine on Thanksgiving, out of an abundance of caution. The CDC and FDA also urged all shoppers and businesses to throw out any romaine lettuce in the fridge and sanitize the areas where it was stored. The agencies still think that was a smart move.
"It was critically important to have a 'clean break' in the romaine supply available to consumers in the U.S. in order to purge the market of potentially contaminated romaine lettuce related to the current outbreak," the FDA said.
When will it be safe to buy romaine lettuce?
Since ill people reported eating several different kinds of romaine lettuce, both at home and in restaurants, the CDC is suggesting you throw it all away, unless you can confirm it's not from California.
In some cases, it may not be clear whether a mix of "spring greens" contains romaine either, so be careful about those, too.
Because the CDC is still investigating the E. coli outbreak, they're concerned that new cases may continue popping up — it can take 10 days for symptoms of E. coli show up. So the warning about romaine lettuce does not have an end-date yet.
A nasty strain of E. coli
Leafy greens like romaine or spinach are the most common sources of foodborne illness infections, according to an analysis by the CDC. There are many opportunities for bacteria to spread to these products and they're usually eaten raw, which means bacteria aren't killed by cooking. Washing produce can reduce some contamination, but it doesn't kill bacteria.
Investigators have performed whole genome sequencing on the E. coli in question and found that this particular strain, E. coli O157:H7, is most similar to one that sickened 25 people who ate leafy greens (including romaine lettuce) last November and December. One Californian died during that outbreak. In May of last year, O157:H7 also turned up in soy-nut butter. Thirty-two people got sick, and nine developed kidney failure. Earlier this spring, another deadly O157:H7 strain sickened near 200 people and killed 5, but it was less genetically similar to this strain.
O157:H7 usually originates in the guts of cattle, but it can also be found in goats, sheep, deer, and elk as well. It can travel from cattle farms to nearby fields where lettuce is grown and contaminate the greens in the soil. It can also get on the lettuce when food-handlers don't wash their hands properly after coming into contact with E. coli-harboring feces.
The O157:H7 strain is especially dangerous for people because it produces a nasty Shiga toxin that can make us really sick. This kind of Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, as it's sometimes called, spreads to humans when little bits of feces get inside the mouth. That's why a bit of undercooked meat, raw milk, or contaminated lettuce can make you ill.
So until the CDC issues an all-clear update, continue to avoid California romaine.
Kevin Loria contributed to an earlier version of this story.