Was Lettuce Linked to an E. Coli Outbreak?

Health officials in Canada linked an E. coli outbreak to romaine lettuce in late 2017.

  • Published 5 January 2018

On 4 January 2018, the web site Food Safety News reported that romaine lettuce has been linked to multiple illnesses and at least one death in a winter 2017 E. coli outbreak in the U.S. and Canada, possibly originating in Canada. In response, nonprofit advocacy organization Consumer Reports advised readers to avoid romaine lettuce until the cause of the outbreak could be found and the affected items removed from grocery shelves.

Perhaps because of the alarming nature of the story, readers asked whether it was true that health officials have issued a warning against eating romaine lettuce. Although U.S. officials are investigating the outbreak they have not yet issued any official warnings against eating the leafy green food, Consumer Reports is following the lead of Canadian health officials and cautioning Americans to avoid romaine lettuce for the time being:

Over the past seven weeks, 58 people in the U.S. and Canada have become ill from a dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria, likely from eating romaine lettuce. In the U.S., the infections have occurred in 13 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington state). Five people in the U.S. have been hospitalized and one has died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There has also been one death in Canada.

Canadian health authorities identified romaine lettuce as the source of the outbreak in Canada, and are advising people in the country’s eastern provinces to consider eating other types of salad greens until further notice. In the U.S., government health officials are investigating the outbreaks, but have stopped short of recommending people avoid romaine lettuce or any other food.

This strain of E. coli (0157:H7) produces a toxin that in some cases can lead to serious illness, kidney failure, and even death.

That’s why Consumer Reports’ food safety experts are advising that consumers stop eating romaine lettuce until the cause of the outbreak is identified and the offending product is removed from store shelves.

According to the CDC, 17 illnesses in the U.S. have been reported in 13 states: California; Connecticut; Illinois; Indiana; Michigan; Nebraska; New Hampshire; New York; Ohio; Pennsylvania; Virginia; Vermont; and Washington, between November 15 through December 8 of 2017. The Public Health Agency of Canada is investigating 41 illnesses.

Per the Mayo Clinic symptoms of an E. coli infection usually start three or four days after exposure and include the following symptoms:

-Diarrhea, which may range from mild and watery to severe and bloody
-Abdominal cramping, pain or tenderness
-Nausea and vomiting, in some people

E. coli infections can come from ground beef, unpasteurized milk and fresh produce — particularly spinach and lettuce. Per Consumer Reports:

Outbreaks of toxin-producing E. coli are more typically linked to beef (the bacteria can get into the meat during slaughter and processing), especially ground beef, but infections from produce are not unheard of. Leafy greens, including romaine lettuce, were the cause of outbreaks from E. coli 0157:H7 in 2006, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

“Vegetables can be contaminated if animal feces are in the field or in irrigation or washing water,” says [James] Rogers, [] Ph.D., director of Food Safety and Research at Consumer Reports], “The bacteria can also be transmitted if a person who is carrying the bacteria doesn’t wash his or her hands after using the bathroom and then processes or prepares food.”

Washing your greens is a good idea, but won’t necessarily get rid of dangerous E. coli, which can cling to nooks and crannies in the leaves, Rogers notes.

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