E. coli outbreak from romaine lettuce: 7 things to know

Wellness
Romaine lettuce growing on a farm

By now, you’ve almost certainly heard about the multi-state outbreak of E. coli that has been linked to contaminated romaine lettuce. Here are seven things to know as the situation continues to unfold:

 

1. The E. coli outbreak hasn't hit South Carolina — yet

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is tracking the outbreak, 25 states have reported E. coli infections traced to romaine lettuce since mid-March. The outbreak isn’t contained to one region because virtually all of the romaine lettuce produced in the United States between November and March each year comes from one area — Yuma, Arizona. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the contaminated lettuce has originated from multiple farms in Yuma and has been supplied to restaurants and retail stores through multiple processing and shipping companies. Because the lettuce is shipped throughout the country, infected lettuce could show up anywhere.

 

2. The number of people infected with E. coli from the lettuce is likely higher than reported

According to the most recent update from the CDC, 121 people have been infected since the outbreak began. The total number of people infected is likely somewhat higher since not everyone infected will go to a doctor or hospital. In addition, some clinics may be behind in their reporting. One person, from California, has died.

 

3. The bacteria behind the outbreak can make people very sick

E. coli is a bacteria we all have in our intestines. Most warm-blooded animals carry it, too. However, a Shiga toxin-producing strain of E. coli, like E. coli O157:H7, which is behind the current outbreak, can lead to violent intestinal illness, including severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. While most people will recover from E. coli within a week or so, at-risk individuals, such as children, older adults and people with compromised immune systems, can experience serious illness — or death — due to the infection.

 

4. Why lettuce is the culprit behind the outbreak

This isn’t the first E. coli outbreak associated with lettuce, and it probably won’t be the last. Since E. coli bacteria is present in fecal matter, lettuce can be susceptible to contamination through irrigation by contaminated water, unapproved fertilization with manure or mishandling and cross-contamination by workers with unclean hands or tools. In addition, because lettuce is a food that is often eaten uncooked, there is little opportunity for the bacteria to be killed by heat. Simply washing the lettuce is unlikely to remove all traces of the bacteria.

 

5. The outbreak may be nearing an end

Fortunately, the lettuce-growing season in the region where the current E. coli outbreak originated has ended. Since lettuce is a quickly perishable product, most of what was harvested in March has already reached its sell-by dates. Therefore, very little of the contaminated lettuce should still be on store shelves — although some restaurants may still have some in stock and some individuals may still have some in their home refrigerators.

6. What you can do to protect yourself and your family

The CDC and FDA recommend that you throw out any romaine lettuce you have in your refrigerator (this should include any bagged lettuce with multiple varieties of lettuce that could contain romaine) unless you can confirm it is not from the Yuma, Arizona, growing region. You should also throw out any other produce in your refrigerator that may have touched the romaine lettuce, and clean and sanitize the drawer or compartment of your refrigerator where the lettuce was stored. At restaurants, you should avoid ordering any dish that may contain romaine lettuce.

7. If you experience symptoms

If you have eaten romaine lettuce within the past two to eight days and you start experiencing stomach cramping or diarrhea, contact your primary care physician or another qualified health care provider.

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