And when is it safe to eat salad again?
Romaine lettuce: it’s just kind of there. Though hardly anyone’s favorite food, the salad starter is benign and perfectly inoffensive. At least that was the case, until romaine became the cause of the nation’s biggest multi-state E. coli outbreak in over a decade.
According to information shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week, there have now been 84 documented cases of E. coli spread across 19 states since the middle of March. Not since tainted spinach infected 238 and killed five back in 2006 have so many cases from more than one localized area been reported. Current numbers could rise, given the time required for E. coli’s symptoms (which can include severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting) to manifest and for test results to be verified. Thankfully, there have been no deaths linked to lettuce yet.
So what happened? The New York Times says 64 out of the 67 who spoke with the CDC after infection said they’d eaten romaine in the week prior to the onset of symptoms. It’s possible the lettuce was sourced from chopped, bagged romaine popular in restaurants or sold as part of a pre-packaged salad kit in supermarkets. These ‘convenience greens’ can present a higher risk of food-borne illness, given that they’re handled by more people during production. And the fact that we don’t cook romaine prevents the opportunity to kill off any lingering bacteria before consumption.
The CDC has traced this tainted lettuce back to Yuma, Arizona, but they haven’t yet made a more specific determination about where in the area it was grown. Given that Yuma takes over most of the country’s romaine production from California’s Salinas Valley during the cooler months, the e.coli strain has travelled from the southwest all the way to the northeast: the emerging outbreak was first spotted by officials in New Jersey, and Pennsylvania has seen the worst of it with 18 confirmed cases so far.
So how can you keep yourself safe? The CDC has advised taking extra caution to ensure that any lettuce you eat isn’t from the Yuma area. But with food labels often obfuscating or withholding information about where produce is grown, the organization admits that it might be safest to avoid “whole heads and hearts of romaine, chopped romaine, and salads and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce“ entirely for the time being.
While the idea of E. coli in produce is certainly scary, the frequency and intensity of these incidents has actually trended downward over time. “There really had been sort of a positive downturn in the number of outbreaks linked to leafy greens,” said William Marler, a food safety lawyer who spoke with the New York Times. “Certainly the sizes of them seemed to decrease.”
So just chill out on the pre-mixed salads for a while, and you’ll probably be fine. In the meantime, enjoy the temporary reprieve from feeling shamed into eating salad—treating yourself to something less leafyl is really just the safest, healthiest thing you can do right now.