All of your questions about the E. coli outbreak, answered

By Danielle Schwartz, News Editor

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The Centers for Disease Control recalled romaine lettuce on Nov. 20 after 32 reported illnesses, that spread across at least 11 states and Canada, were linked to an E. coli outbreak. The CDC advised U.S. consumers not to eat and retailers and restaurants not to serve or sell any romaine. Read on to better understand why romaine is dangerous and when it could be safe again.

What exactly is “E. coli?” and how did it get in lettuce?

The technical term for the bacteria infecting romaine is Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli 0157:H7. This strain of E. coli produces a toxin that can disrupt liver function. Symptoms of the strain include fever, nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, nosebleeds, shortness of breath, seizures and excessive bleeding. There is no available vaccine for the contagious infection.  Lettuce is vulnerable to E. coli because it is grown in the dirt, openly exposed to bacteria and since it is wrinkled with crevices, it is difficult to wash the dirt and pathogens out of every crease.

Is all romaine dangerous? When will it be safe to eat again?

When the CDC initially announced the recall, they advised avoiding all romaine. Along with the Food and Drug Administration, they have since isolated the romaine E. coli outbreak to a certain region. The FDA released a hopeful statement, addressing where the E. coli is coming from.

“Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the FDA continued to investigate the outbreak,” the FDA said. “Our investigation at this point suggests that romaine associated with the outbreak comes from areas of California that grow romaine over the summer months, and that the outbreak appears to be related to ‘end of season’ romaine harvested from these areas.”

Everyone mourning their favorite lettuce can be optimistic that the toxic season is ending and romaine should be safe shortly.

What can you eat instead of romaine?

As one of the most popular lettuces is currently unavailable in grocery stores and restaurants, people are left struggling to decide what to eat. There is no need to give up on diets because there are plenty of viable substitutes. For those who enjoy the texture of romaine, iceberg gives a similar crunch. More nutritional options include spinach, kale and arugula.

How is the recall affecting local businesses?

Restaurants were forced to throw out hundreds of dollars worth of romaine and many struggled to supplement their menu items, as the demand for other lettuces increased dramatically. Some began charging their customers extra for salads with substituted lettuce. Romaine is very widely used in a number of salads and salad mixes, so until the recall is cancelled, Caesar salads will be in short supply.