If you were planning to serve romaine at Thanksgiving tomorrow, don’t. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) just issued food safety alerts about an E. coli outbreak linked to this lettuce variety. At the time of the initial CDC report, 32 people from 11 states had been infected, as well as 18 people in Canada.
I spoke with FDA Press Officer Peter Cassell to find out everything you need to know:
What do I do if I have romaine?
Throw it out. "We recognize this is a broad warning," Cassell said, "but our first mandate is to protect public health." Likewise, the CDC report stressed: “This advice includes all types or uses of romaine lettuce, such as whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, and bags and boxes of precut lettuce and salad mixes that contain romaine, including baby romaine, spring mix, and Caesar salad.”
After you throw it out, thoroughly clean the area of your fridge where the romaine was stored. Remove all food items and wash with soapy water. If any food may have come in direct contact with the romaine, throw that out, too. Now wash your hands.
What if I just ate romaine?
I did, too. Don’t panic, but do know what to look out for. A shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infection usually starts to show symptoms within three to four days after consuming a contaminated food. These symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhea, bloody stool, vomiting, and a fever. The severity of the infection varies from person to person, with pregnant women, young children, and the elderly being particularly at risk. If you’ve eaten romaine and start to exhibit any of these issues, get in touch with your healthcare provider.
Didn’t something just like this just happen?
Yes. Earlier this year, an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine was responsible for almost 200 infections, including five deaths. That particular outbreak was traced back to the Yuma growing region in Arizona.
Is this outbreak also linked to the Yuma region?
According to Cassell, "It's too soon to tell in the investigation whether or not this was linked to one specific place or farm." That said, there is a strong suspicion that the source is California: "What we know about the way romaine is grown is that most romaine on the market is coming from California. Right around this time of the year, it switches back to the Yuma area. But the illness onset dates suggest that the product on the market is from California."
Why is it always romaine?
Well, not always. In 2013, the CDC conducted a study on food poisoning from 1998 to 2008. According to the paper: “Among the 17 commodities, more illnesses were associated with leafy vegetables (2.2 million [22%]) than any other commodity.” That means in addition to romaine, other bagged lettuces have been the culprit of major E. coli outbreaks, like spinach in 2006.
As Julia Belluz reported for Vox earlier this year, any variety of precut and bagged lettuce is particularly problematic: “During processing, bacteria living among the leafy greens has a moist environment in which to flourish.”
Cassell echoed this, telling me: "The problem is not romaine specifically, just the method in which people consume it: raw. Any product that is eaten raw is more susceptible to a pathogen because it doesn't go through a step that would neutralize a pathogen, like cooking would. If you were baking bread, for example, that would kill any E. coli in the flour."
When is it safe to eat romaine again?
It’s too soon to say. For reference, the outbreak earlier this year was initially discovered on April 4th and was deemed over on June 28th—almost three months. In the current outbreak, reported illnesses range from mid- to late-October, and the investigation is still in development. "Our safest recommendation, because we believe contaminated products are still out there, is avoid romaine until we know more," Cassell said.