Romaine lettuce is making people dangerously ill again, prompting public health officials in the US and Canada to issue nationwide alerts: don’t eat any form of romaine lettuce, and toss any romaine you have. If you don’t know what kind of lettuce is in your fridge, throw it out. Even if you had grand plans for a romaine-focused side dish for Thanksgiving — you know who you are — don’t take any chances.
So far, 32 people in the US and 18 in Canada have been infected with a dangerous strain of E. coli that produces toxins called Shiga toxins and can sometimes cause kidney failure. Other symptoms can range from bloody diarrhea and vomiting to a low fever. So far, no one has died, but the outbreak has sent 13 people in the US and five in Canada to the hospital. Two people — one in each country — have developed kidney failure.
Public health investigators asked people what they’d eaten, and 79 percent said they’d had romaine — both at restaurants, and at home. So far, no one knows whether there’s a common link. E. coli naturally hangs out in animal intestines, and one of the grossest ways it spreads is through poop. Produce can become contaminated if poop-tainted water gets into the field where it’s grown, or if the produce comes into contact with contaminated surfaces during harvest, shipping, or at the store. “At this time, no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand of romaine lettuce has been identified,” according to a CDC statement. That’s why the CDC is advising a blanket moratorium on eating romaine lettuce, lettuce mixed with romaine, or lettuce that might be romaine but you’re not sure.
Many strains of E. coli won’t harm humans when ingested, but the one involved in this outbreak is an exception. The particular strain is called E. coli O157:H7. And even though investigators don’t know where it came from, they do know that they’ve seen it before. It’s a close genetic relative of the E. coli that sickened 25 people and killed one in the US at the end of 2017. That outbreak affected Canada as well — infecting 42 people and killing one. In the US, the infection was traced back to leafy greens, but which ones remained a mystery. In Canada, public health investigators tied it to romaine lettuce. (The E. coli O157:H7 outbreak between March and June 2018 that was spread by romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona isn’t related to the outbreak announced today.)
The CDC urges anyone who suspects they might have been infected to talk to their doctors and try to remember what they ate. And the CDC warns clinicians against just handing out antibiotics, because apparently they might make the risk of kidney failure worse.