Everyone’s buzzing about romaine—and with good reason. For a few weeks now, the CDC has been warning of an E. coli outbreak associated with the green. Since there’s been some confusion as to the source of the problem and whether or not it persists, we talked to Brittany Behm, a CDC representative, to clear things up. Here’s what she had to say about the recall and how you can keep yourself safe.
Valerio Farris: What’s going on with romaine?
Brittany Behm: The CDC, FDA, and several states continue to investigate this multi-state outbreak of an E. coli infection linked to romaine lettuce. We’re up to 149 people sick from 29 states; about half of those people are hospitalized, and there’s been one death from California. So it’s a very serious outbreak. Evidence has suggested that the contamination is likely linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region, which is in Arizona and southeast California. The investigation is ongoing to find out exactly what happened.
We’re concerned that there might still be contaminated lettuce in peoples’ fridges, and stores at restaurants that could make people sick. So our advice right now is to avoid any type of romaine lettuce, whether it’s a whole head, chopped romaine, or romaine in a salad bag mixed with other types of lettuce—unless you know for sure that it's not from the Yuma growing region. That said, it can be very, very difficult to know where your lettuce was grown, what farm, what area of the country. If in doubt, especially while this outbreak is going on, we recommend people just throw away their lettuce and not eat it.
From what we understand from the FDA and the industry, the romaine growing, harvesting, and production has moved from Yuma up to Salinas Valley, California as of mid-April or so. There’s no longer any romaine coming out of Yuma; however, lettuce can last for a few weeks on the shelf, three weeks or so. We’re within that window of time; the contaminated lettuce could still be out there. Because this is a really serious illness, we want to get the message out that people should not take this lightly and should not eat romaine lettuce right now unless they're sure it’s not from the Yuma area.
VF: How can someone be sure it’s not from that area?
BB: It’s very difficult to tell. You can check with the company you’re buying from. I know there are some restaurant chains out there who have sent out communication to their patrons that they have checked, and their lettuce is being sourced from Salinas Valley, so their lettuce is good to go and that’s fine. You can check with the restaurant that you’re eating at, you can check with the company that you’re buying the lettuce from, and if they're confident, then that’s a good thing. But if you’re not confident and you don’t know, then we would avoid it.
VF: What are some of the symptoms?
BB: E. coli generally causes stomach cramps and diarrhea about three to four days after eating something that’s contaminated. A lot of people recover within a week or so on their own, but for other people, it can be really serious and lead to hospitalization and kidney failure. The people that we’re most concerned about that tend to get more sick, or are more likely to get sick, are those elderly people over 65, younger children under 5, people with weakened immune systems. Those people especially need to take precautions to avoid this lettuce.
VF: Is there any kind of projected window for how long this will last? Is there an end in sight?
BB: Because we are being told that romaine is not coming out of the Yuma growing region at this time and that it stopped somewhere in mid-April, we anticipate that the outbreak will slow down and people will stop getting sick in the coming weeks. But there is this concern that even as romaine is not coming out anymore, it could still be in people’s fridges and could still be on store shelves, so we want people to be really vigilant, to be thinking about romaine and perhaps choose another lettuce if you don’t know where it's from.
VF: What's a good way for people to stay updated?
BB: The CDC is posting weekly updates on the outbreak at cdc.gov/ecoli. There are also great food safety tips at foodsafety.gov or on CDC’s webpage to learn more about how to protect yourself in general from foodborne illness.