Of all the potentially scary foods in the supermarket, the Romaine lettuce is probably the least intimidating. We’ve all heard horror stories of days spent stuck to the toilet after a poorly cooked piece of chicken or pork, but you rarely hear someone blaming salad for a similar turn of events. Maybe we should have shown a little more respect.
Last week, it emerged that the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America had issued a stark warning to shoppers across the country. In the run up to Thanksgiving, it had become clear that the food industry was in the throes of a serious E. coli epidemic. The culprit wasn’t maltreated meat or dodgy dairy. Instead, the finger of blame was squarely pointed at the leafy green vegetable.
Slowly, more and more cases of Romaine-induced E. coli poisoning came to the surface. In Canada, 22 people have fallen seriously ill, while south of the border saw at least one person suffer from kidney failure. Though there have been no confirmed deaths directly attributed to the outbreak, the situation is so serious that authorities have initiated a “Stop, Process and Release” protocol on all potentially affected produce across the nation in an attempt to pinpoint the source.
As part of a Food Safety Alert issued last week, the CDC advised citizens that “Consumers who have any type of romaine lettuce in their home should not eat it and should throw it away, even if some of it was eaten and no one has gotten sick.” This warning “includes all types or uses of romaine lettuce, such as whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, and bags and boxes of pre-cut lettuce and salad mixes that contain romaine, including baby romaine, spring mix, and Caesar salad.”
The outbreak is perhaps doubly disturbing, given the numerous issues that the food industry has experienced with Romaine in recent years. Outbreaks in the spring, as well as in 2017 prove that experts are still trying to get their heads around what is the best way to deal with any further E. coli outbreaks in the future.
In a statement to CNN on Tuesday, FDA Commissioner Dr Scott Gottlieb admitted that it was “frustrating” that the exact source or cause of the outbreak was yet to be identified. He went on to add that, "The strain in 2017 is the same as the strain in this fall 2018 outbreak, and the time of year is exactly the same. So It's likely associated with end of season harvest in California. This year, we're a month earlier, so we're earlier in the process, earlier in the throes of an outbreak. So we're able to actually get real-time information and conduct effective trace back and isolate what the source is."
Whatever the cause of the bacteria may be, it seems sensible to follow governmental advice and steer clear of anything too green for the time being. Until we know exactly what is happening, salad is going to be a whole lot more sinister.