Watch Out For Romaine Lettuce!

May 8, 2018 By Renee W, Writer Intern
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It is in your salads and many other meals – however, beware as this leaf has the potential to make you green!

An E-coli outbreak has hit 25 states in the U.S. The outbreak began in early April and now 121 people have been sick from consuming the E-coli infected lettuce, of which 54 have been hospitalized with one dead. California has the highest number of cases reported, followed by Pennsylvania.

Upon consumption, it can take a person two to eight days to get sick and experience symptoms of bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, and vomiting. Although most recover just as quickly as they have been sick, other infections from the germ could be severe and fatal. The outbreak can be traced to Yuma, Arizona, and is the largest outbreak affecting many US states since 2006.

The Culprit: E-Coli

E-coli, a group of bacteria, is found in the intestines of many living things. Most strains of E-coli are essential for the health of your intestines, however, some strains can result in illnesses.

The name of the specific strain causing the outbreaks is E-coli 0157:H7, which produces Shiga toxins. Dr. Kiyoshi Shiga discovered this strain in 1897. This strain affects not only romaine lettuce, but also spinach, eggs, and yogurt. However, leafy greens such as romaine lettuce are most susceptible to E-coli as when preparing it, most do not use a “kill step,” placing the greens under high heats (which can kill bacteria).

The strain is transmitted through feces which investigators suspect could possibly come from a person or animal. E-coli can spread when farm workers do not wash their hands before handling vegetables, or farm machines have leftover manure on them.

How To Protect Yourself

When preparing food, the Center for Disease Control recommends following four simple steps – clean, separate, cook and chill.

  • Clean refers to washing hands for at least 20 seconds and washing vegetables too.
  • Separate means to keep foods such as raw meat and eggs away from other items so as to not cross contaminate.
  • Cook refers to cooking foods to the right temperatures – different foods have different temperatures at which they are high enough to kill off illness-inducing germs.
  • Chill warns us to thaw frozen food safely, not out on the counter but in water.

It is advised to avoid all bagged romaine lettuce you might find in the grocery store or when you are dining out at a restaurant. Washing romaine lettuce is advised, but will not eliminate all germs. How is an outbreak tracked? Local hospitals send E-coli samples from affected patients to state laboratories. If multiple samples of an E-coli’s “fingerprint” match, it is sent to a network that will detect any further outbreaks.

For now, avoid romaine lettuce and fear not, as “Disease detectives” or health officials are working hard on researching the outbreak. 

Sources: NYTimes, Washington Post, CDC, Healthline, delish, winonadaily