Food & Drink

After a recent outbreak of E.coli, is it safe to eat romaine lettuce? Experts differ

Romaine lettuce being harvested in Salinas. Nearly 40 people in the United States have been made sick from contaminated romaine lettuce out of Yuma, Arizona.
Romaine lettuce being harvested in Salinas. Nearly 40 people in the United States have been made sick from contaminated romaine lettuce out of Yuma, Arizona. Associated Press file

If you are staying away from romaine lettuce because of an outbreak of E.coli, it’s understandable. But at least one food safety expert says it may not be necessary.

The latest foodborne illness outbreak has caused the deaths of two people and made nearly 60 people sick in the United States and Canada.

Canadian health officials are blaming the outbreak on contaminated romaine lettuce while U.S. officials say there isn’t enough evidence to make that link. At least not yet. Still, Consumer Reports is warning people not to eat romaine lettuce in the U.S., for now.

But University of California food safety expert Trevor Suslow said it’s unlikely the lettuce you buy at the grocery store these days is going to do you any harm. That’s because the illnesses happened from Nov. 15 through Dec. 8. Lettuce sold during that period wouldn’t be around anymore.

“It’s not going to last that long, it’s gone,” Suslow said.

Also, none of the growers, packers or shippers of romaine lettuce in the U.S. have been contacted by any federal food safety agency. This time of year, 90 percent of the romaine consumed in the U.S. is coming out of the Imperial Valley in Southern California and Arizona. The desert season for romaine generally runs from November to March.

Industry officials say the call to stop eating the lettuce is beginning to have an effect on the marketplace.

“There are buyers who are scaling back their orders based on abundance of caution,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, an industry food safety program. “But the chances of any tainted produce still out there is very slim.”

As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had the following message posted on their website: “Because we have not identified a source of the infections, CDC is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food. This investigation is ongoing, and more information will be released as it becomes available.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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