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Experts Warn: Throw Out Your Romaine Lettuce. Like, Now

Photograph by Twenty20

With the new year inviting all of those health-conscious resolutions, odds are many people have been chowing down on salads this week. And while a nice, big bowl of greens would normally be a great choice, right now you might want to rethink your menu choice.

According to food safety experts at Consumer Reports, a consumer-advocacy group, everyone in the U.S. and Canada should avoid eating any new or previously purchased romaine lettuce. This includes any pre-packaged lettuce, open-air lettuce or salad mixes and blends that contain romaine lettuce. Restaurants and other food service establishments are also being advised to stop using romaine lettuce immediately.

The new report warns that an outbreak of E. coli among 58 people over the past seven weeks in the U.S. and Canada has been traced backed to romaine lettuce by Canadian health officials. The outbreak of E. coli, a bacteria that can cause serious complications and even lead to death, has infected individuals in 13 U.S. states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont and Washington state).

Within those 13 states, five people have been hospitalized and one death has been reported so far. In Canada, one person has also died as a result of the infection. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't officially recommended that consumers avoid romaine lettuce yet, health officials in Canada have advised their eastern providence residents to use other salad greens at the moment. Despite the fact that the U.S. hasn't issued an official ban on the lettuce yet, an expert with Consumer Reports points out that lettuce in general carries a high risk of infection-causing bacteria like E. coli because it is eaten raw instead of cooked. And although washing your produce is always a good idea, rinsing lettuce does not necessarily remove E. coli if it is present.

In most healthy individuals, E. coli will cause stomach pain and cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and a low-grade fever but should pass on its own in five to seven days. As with any infection, children, the elderly and anyone with a suppressed immune system are most at risk from an E. coli infection. The illness can turn serious, however, so you should be aware of what to look out for.

What you can do right now to avoid the risk:

  • Check your fridge for any romaine lettuce, including any bagged salad mixes or blends.
  • Throw out any romaine lettuce and be sure it's properly disposed of (i.e., don't spread E. coli around in your garbage bin where a kid might put her hands!)
  • Avoid romaine at restaurants.
  • Check with your children's school or daycare to find out if they are serving romaine lettuce.
  • If you or your child exhibits symptoms of diarrhea lasting more than three days, blood in the stool, vomiting so much you can't keep liquids down, or are not urinating very much, contact a doctor right away.
  • Be on the lookout for serious complications of E. coli, including hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which affects the kidneys. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain that HUS occurs about a week after you get the first symptoms, after the diarrhea has stopped. Signs include extreme fatigue, decreased urination, and losing the pink color in the cheeks and inside the lower eyelids.

Keep in mind that the US is still investigating and can't say with 100 percent certainty that romaine lettuce is the cause of the infection here. They have found that the E. coli outbreak here appears to be similar to the outbreak in Canada, but currently do not have enough evidence to issue an official recommendation against Americans eating romaine lettuce.

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