It’s apparently safe to eat romaine lettuce again.
Last week, officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Food and Drug Administration declared an end to a deadly E. coli outbreak associated with leafy greens.
The outbreak killed two people and sickened at least 66 across the United States and Canada in late 2017. On Jan. 25 Consumer Reports wrote that after two months of investigating, the CDC and the FDA jointly declared an end to the outbreak.
While the FDA and CDC were not able to identify a specific type of leafy green as the source of the outbreak, Canadian health officials linked it to romaine lettuce. Because lettuce has a short shelf life and the last illness reported started more than a month ago, the CDC said in its final update it is likely the contaminated leafy greens liked to the outbreak are no longer for sale.
The FDA said it will continue “to work with federal, state and local partners to determine what leafy greens made people ill, what people ate, where they bought it and identify the distribution chain,” with the goal of identifying where the food might have become contaminated.
Generally, lettuce appears to be more vulnerable to bacterial contamination than other produce, leading the FDA to start its own initiative specifically focused on lettuce safety. Unfortunately, if you get ahold of leafy greens contaminated with E. coli, simply washing them is not enough.
“It is very difficult to remove bacteria from leafy greens,” James Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety and research at Consumer Reports told the magazine. “Bacteria have the ability to adhere to the surface of the leaves, and to get stuck in microscopic crevices.”
E. coli bacteria specifically has unique survival tactics that make it impossible to wash away. It produces a protective biofilm that encases the bacteria and helps it adhere to a surface. It can also penetrate into produce, burrowing below the surface.
Cool running water and vinegar solutions can reduce, but not completely eliminate, other bacteria. Canada’s public health department also suggests:
- Washing your hands in warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling lettuce.
- Discarding all the outer leaves of the lettuce.
- Rinsing the produce until no traces of dirt remain.
While some strains of E. coli are harmless, others can make you very sick. If you do become infected with E. Coli, symptoms include fever, abdominal pain and possibly bloody diarrhea.