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Romaine lettuce is unsafe to eat in any form, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday in a broad alert in response to a new outbreak of illnesses caused by a particularly dangerous type of E. coli contamination.
The CDC told consumers to throw away any romaine lettuce they may already have purchased. Restaurants should not serve it, stores should not sell it, and people should not buy it, no matter where or when the lettuce was grown. It doesn’t matter if it is chopped, whole head or part of a mix. All romaine should be avoided.
The CDC alert, issued just two days before Americans sit down for their Thanksgiving dinners, reported that 32 people in 11 states have become sick from eating contaminated romaine. Of those, 13 have been hospitalized, with one patient suffering from a form of kidney failure. The Public Health Agency of Canada has reported 18 people infected with the same strain of E. coli.
No deaths have been reported.
“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,” the CDC said in the Food Safety Alert issued shortly before 3 p.m.
“This advice includes all types or uses of romaine lettuce, such as whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, and bags and boxes of precut lettuce and salad mixes that contain romaine, including baby romaine, spring mix, and Caesar salad,” the CDC said. “If you do not know if the lettuce is romaine or whether a salad mix contains romaine, do not eat it and throw it away.”
The agency also advised consumers to wash and sanitize drawers and shelves where the lettuce was stored. People usually become sick within three or four days of consuming lettuce contaminated with the E. coli, according to the CDC.
The origin of the outbreak is unknown and remains under investigation. The CDC did not limit the warning to romaine from any particular agricultural area.
California has the highest number of reported illnesses, with 10, followed by Michigan with seven, New Jersey with three, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York with two each, and the remainder in Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio and Wisconsin.
The Food and Drug Administration issued a statement saying it is making a special effort to test romaine for contamination across the country.
“The quick and aggressive steps we’re taking today are aimed at making sure we get ahead of this emerging outbreak, to reduce risk to consumers, and to help people protect themselves and their families from this foodborne illness outbreak. This is especially important ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, when people will be sitting down for family meals,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
Five people died in the most recent major outbreak from contaminated romaine, which lasted from March to June of this year and led to 210 cases in 36 states. That outbreak was traced to the Yuma, Ariz. growing region, but investigators never conclusively determined the precise source.
The latest outbreak does not appear to be connected to the Yuma outbreak. Rather, this outbreak involves a strain of E. coli that has the same genetic fingerprint as the one that caused illnesses from leafy greens late last year in both the United States and Canada. That outbreak was declared over in January.
All three outbreaks — the current one, the one from Yuma and the one from last year — are caused by contamination of E. coli O157:H7. It produces a Shiga toxin that can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure. Until the 1990s, most E. coli cases in humans came from eating contaminated hamburger. In more recent years, after reforms in the livestock industry, the outbreaks have been most often associated with leafy greens.
This is a developing story.