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Lettuce Myths and How You Can Stay Safe

Posted in E. coli,Outbreaks & Recalls on April 21, 2018

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expanded their warning for the E. coli outbreak that has been connected to romaine lettuce. The previous warning was limited to salad mix chopped romaine lettuce (Bagged Lettuce).  Now, it has been expanded to include ALL forms of romaine, including whole head and hearts of romaine which is usually grown in Yuma, Arizona.

The new warning was issued after 8 new cases of acute gastroenteritis was found at a correctional facility in Nome, Alaska.  It appears to be connected to the current E. coli romaine lettuce outbreak which has affected 53 people in 16 states.  So far, thirty-one people have been hospitalized and although no one has died, five people have developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

The CDC’s recommendation is to avoid any romaine lettuce products.  Because packaging labels often do not identify the region the lettuce was grown, the CDC says consumers should throw out any romaine lettuce in their homes and avoid eating romaine lettuce at restaurants.

With the CDC warnings against romaine lettuce, many people are wondering if what they think they know about lettuce food safety is true.  You may be surprised to learn a few new things.

Myths About Lettuce

MYTH 1:  Washing the Lettuce Will Kill Any Bacteria That Can Make You Sick.

Since lettuce is suspected to be the cause of the current outbreak, many people believe that washing the greens before eating will remove the risk of foodborne illness.

FACT:

You may be surprised to learn that washing contaminated lettuce can reduce the likelihood of illness, but does not completely eliminate the risk. E. colibacteria can be found inside of the lettuce leaf and not just on the outside.

Many people botch the washing process because the produce is not the only thing that needs to be washed.  Your hands should be thoroughly washed, using warm water and soap, for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.  Lettuce should be washed under a stream of cool water or using the spray nozzle from the faucet.  Rub the produce with your hands or scrub with a vegetable brush to remove potential bacteria in all the grooves and crevices.  The outer leaves should also be removed. It is also a good idea to dry off any washed lettuce with a clean paper towel.

However, with this type of E. coli bacteria, it is safer to just throw it away rather than risk yours and your family’s health.  The CDC and FDA recommend avoidance of any romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region.

MYTH:  E. coli Only Come from Contaminate Dairy and Meats

Many people believe that E. coli can only be found in certain animals, like cows, and only contaminate when they are sick with an infection there by infecting the dairy and meats.  They also associate E. coli with meats like chicken and seafood.

FACT:

Cross-contamination can cause E. coli to infect many things people may not think about.  Because of cross-contamination, E. coli can be found in fruits and vegetables as well as dairies and meats. In fact, there have been dozens of outbreaks involving foodborne pathogens and lettuce.  E. coli are a diverse family of bacteria that can be found in the environment, in food and in the intestines of people and animals. Most strains are harmless.

These are the CDC’s recommendation to avoid becoming infecting with a harmful strain of E. coli:

  • Proper hygiene
  • Cook meat to proper temperatures
  • Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products and juices
  • Not swallowing water when swimming

MYTH 3:  Whole Lettuce is Safer Than Bagged Lettuce

Before the expanded warning, the romaine lettuce warning was only limited to bagged romaine lettuce which led many people to believe that whole lettuce had less bacteria than bagged lettuce which made it safer to eat.  They feel the nutrients and health benefits are washed away during the bagging process.

FACT:

While eating whole lettuce may be healthier by increasing the antioxidant activity, it is not necessarily safer.  Bagged lettuce is safer BECAUSE it goes through a triple-washed process instead of hand-washed.  The process drastically decreases the risk of foodborne illness.  The triple-wash process uses more than water to kill bacteria and other pathogens.  Food packaging plants are regulated by the government and must practice certain safety guidelines.  Due to use of these safety guidelines, there is an overall decline in food safety recalls due to food safety procedures at packaging plants. However, constant vigilance is still recommended.

MYTH:  You Must Wash Bagged Lettuce Before Eating

It can be confusing when it comes to when you should wash your produces and when you shouldn’t. Bagged lettuce and bagged salads are popular because they are convenient.  However, consumers often make the mistake of hand-washing the greens before consuming them.

FACT:

Washing your bagged lettuce can increase the likelihood of getting sick from a foodborne illness.  Cross-contamination can add bacteria onto the clean leafy greens.  By not washing your hands or sink before washing the leaves, you are putting yourself at risk.  The bagged lettuce and bagged salads have already been thoroughly clean using the triple-washed process.  The bagged lettuce and bagged salad are ready to eat and should be treated as such.

Keeping an Eye on Romaine for Now

While the CDC has narrowed down the region of the affected lettuce, they have not identified a grower, supplier, distributor, or brand. There are hopes that this information will be forthcoming in the coming days or weeks.

To help keep you and yours healthy, it is a good idea to follow good food safety practices. For example, after you throw away all your romaine lettuce, wash and sanitize the area in the refrigerator when it was stored.  The symptoms of this strain of E. coli include: severe stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea, which is often bloody.  Anyone with these symptoms should see a health care provider immediately and report their infection to local departments of health and social services.

By: Keeba Smith, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)