If you’ve taken romaine lettuce out of your diet since the multi-state E.coli outbreak in April, you can now feel safe adding it back onto your menu. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared it is now safe to eat the leafy green once again.
From March 13-May 2, 172 people across 32 states became ill from romaine lettuce, resulting in 75 hospitalizations and one death. The Food and Drug Administration traced the affected lettuce to growers in Yuma, Arizona and confirmed on May 16, through the Arizona Department of Agriculture, that romaine lettuce is no longer being produced and distributed from the Yuma growing region.
The last date of harvest in that region was April 16, so the FDA says it is now unlikely that any infected romaine lettuce is still available in stores or restaurants due to its 21-day shelf life. This means it is now safe to buy new romaine lettuce, but if you bought lettuce prior to the ban being lifted, there is a chance you could still get sick.
Because the outbreak could not be traced to a single supplier, the FDA says it is continuing to investigate illnesses related to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region.
“The ongoing traceback investigation indicates that the illnesses associated with this outbreak cannot be explained by a single grower, harvester, processor or distributor,” the FDA wrote in a statement. “While traceback continues, FDA will focus on trying to identify factors that contributed to contamination of romaine across multiple supply chains. The agency is examining all possibilities, including that contamination may have occurred at any point along the growing, harvesting, packaging and distribution chain before reaching consumers.”
This outbreak is not related to a multi-state outbreak of E. coli infections from November to December 2017 which was also linked to leafy greens consumption. People in that outbreak were infected with a different E. coli bacteria.
Generally, lettuce appears to be more vulnerable to bacterial contamination than other produce, in part because it can become contaminated in the field by soil, contaminated water, animals or improperly composted manure.
“Lettuce can also be contaminated by bacteria during and after harvest from handling, storing and transporting the produce,” said Jeff Farber, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety and a professor at University of Guelph in Ontario.
Simply washing the lettuce does not get rid of the bacteria and many people tend to eat it without cooking it, which would kill the germs. Lettuce is also a pretty popular produce item, which could also be a reason you hear of more people getting sick.
Even though the CDC and FDA say we can now eat the lettuce again, it’s always a good idea to wash all your produce. Cool running water and vinegar solutions can reduce, but not completely eliminate, other bacteria. Canada’s public health department also suggests:
- Washing your hands in warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling lettuce.
- Discarding all the outer leaves of the lettuce.
- Rinsing the produce until no traces of dirt remain.