Advice to Avoid Romaine Lettuce, for Now

At the start of the new year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(Atlanta,GA) and the federal Food and Drug Administration announced an investigation into toxic E. coli infections in the U.S.  Since November, 58 people in the U.S. and Canada have become ill from a dangerous strain of E. coli (E. coliO157:H7) that may be from eating romaine lettuce.  In the U.S., infections have occurred in 13 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington state).  As yet, no illnesses have been linked to this outbreak in Wisconsin.

Five people in the U.S. have been hospitalized as a result of the outbreak, and one has died.  There has also been one death in Canada.  Canadian health authorities have identified romaine lettuce as the source of the outbreak in Canada, and are advising consumers in the eastern provinces to avoid this product.  U.S. government officials are still investigating the outbreak and have stopped short of recommending that consumers avoid romaine lettuce or any other product.  A full report of the outbreak in Consumer Reports does, however, urge consumers to proceed with caution and to avoid romaine lettuce at this time.  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, be it lettuce or some other food product, is removed from store shelves.

The infectious dose for illness with E. coli O157:H7, is very low, as few as 10 cells.  And while anyone can get sick, young children, the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, and pregnant woman are at greater risk for serious consequences from the illness.

Consumer Reports may be urging greater caution because of outbreaks in the U.S. in prior years from October-January linked to spinach and shredded lettuce.  These prior outbreaks sickened hundreds across the U.S.  Those with the U.S. government investigating the outbreak, however, note that there is not enough evidence at this time to indicate a specific source of the illnesses in the United States.

Symptoms of infection with E. coli O157:H7 include severe cramping, diarrhea (often bloody), and severe vomiting.  The Centers for Disease Control urges anyone with a suspected foodborne illness to monitor symptoms carefully and to seek medical attention if symptoms do not clear up on their own within a few days (for an otherwise healthy adult), sooner for more at-risk individuals, or if symptoms such as bloody diarrhea appear.  Thanks to Renee Vertin (Washington County) for prompting me to write this post.  Stay food safe!

Authored by: Barb Ingham, 608-263-7383, bhingham@wisc.edu
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