Tainted romaine lettuce is being blamed for causing an E. coli. outbreak in Canada and it may also be the culprit behind an outbreak in the U.S.
A dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria has left a total of 58 people ill in both countries, according to Consumer Reports. People have fallen ill in 13 states: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington. Five people in the U.S. have been hospitalized and one has died. One death was also reported in Canada.
Canadian health officials determined that tainted romaine lettuce caused the E. coli outbreak in that country. People in Canada's eastern provinces are being advised to avoid eating the vegetable until further notice.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped short of banning romaine lettuce or any other foods because it is continuing to study what is causing the illness. But health experts from Consumer Reports suggested Wednesday that people in the U.S. should still avoid eating romaine lettuce.
“Because we have not identified a source of the infections, CDC is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food,” the CDC said in a prepared statement. “This investigation is ongoing, and more information will be released as it becomes available.”
Still, preliminary results show that the type of E. coli making people sick in both countries is closely related genetically. That means the source of infection is likely the same, according to the CDC.
Why should people avoid eating romaine lettuce?
Food safety experts from Consumer Reports said Wednesday that consumers should not eat romaine lettuce "until the cause of the outbreak is identified and all tainted products are removed from store shelves."
It's better to err on the side of safety, according to Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports.
"The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] should follow the lead of the Canadian government and immediately warn the public about this risk," Halloran said. “The available data strongly suggest that romaine lettuce is the source of the U.S. outbreak. If so, and people aren’t warned, more may get sick.”
The FDA website does not list any recalls of romaine lettuce at this time.
James Rogers, director of Food Safety and Research at Consumer Reports, echoed her concerns.
"Even though we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that romaine lettuce is the cause of the E. coli outbreak in the U.S., a greater degree of caution is appropriate given that lettuce is almost always consumed raw," he said.
How serious is this?
This particular strain of E. coli (0157:H7) produces a toxin that can lead to serious illness, kidney failure, or even death, according to published reports. Typical symptoms of an E. coli infection are severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. A slight fever may also be present.
Anyone experiencing symptoms longer than three days should seek medical treatment, according to the CDC. Symptoms can begin anywhere from one to 10 days after eating contaminated food.
How do vegetables get contaminated with E. coli?
“Vegetables can be contaminated if animal feces are in the field or in irrigation or washing water,” Rogers said. “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 vegetables isn’t enough to get rid of E. coli contamination. That’s because it clings to “nooks and crannies” in the leaves, according to the report.