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Romaine lettuce from Arizona has an E. coli problem, but the good news is the harvest there is over

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Posted by Verge Science on Saturday, November 11, 2017

If you’re freaking out about the recent E. coli outbreak tied to romaine lettuce, don’t. Growing season is over in the area of Yuma, Arizona where the infected produce was coming from, so the romaine lettuce at your grocery store or restaurant should be coming from other places and be just fine. Still, if you can’t confirm where the romaine lettuce is coming from, don’t eat it, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So far, 121 people have been infected with E. coli in 25 states, the CDC announced today. Though most strains of E. coli are harmless, some — like the E. coli O157:H7 that caused the outbreak — can produce toxins and make people sick. If you eat a salad with infected leaves, you can get cramps, bloody diarrhea, and even kidney failure, according to microbiologist Michele Jay-Russell, a food safety expert at UC Davis. Of the people who’ve gotten sick from the romaine lettuce, 52 have been hospitalized, 14 had kidney failure, and one in California has died, according to the CDC.

Though the fact that one person died is scary, you should keep in mind that it takes a few days for people who eat the contaminated lettuce to get sick, and it takes a few weeks for the illnesses to be reported to the CDC. That could mean that there are more unreported cases, but food safety experts think the outbreak may soon come to an end.

All the cases linked to the E. coli outbreak point to romaine lettuce coming from the region of Yuma, Arizona, the CDC says. That’s where most of the salad greens consumed in the US come from during the months of December to March. After that, harvesting moves to Salinas in the central coast of California. (This area is too wet in the winter, so that’s why lettuce is grown in the Arizona desert during that time.)

Because growing season is over in Yuma, the romaine lettuce that you find at your store or in restaurants should have been shipped from elsewhere at this point. If your produce comes from California or your local farm, there’s no reason to worry. But it’s always good to ask: is the romaine lettuce from Yuma? If people don’t know, don’t buy it. And if you have two- or three-week-old romaine lettuce in your fridge, and you don’t know where it was grown, it’s probably best to toss it out, says Trevor Suslow, a food safety expert at UC Davis.

Fresh produce is often the culprit of food-borne illnesses. That’s because, unlike meat, you don’t throw a salad on the grill, so you can’t kill off any dangerous bacteria in the cooking process. “There’s no kill step,” Jay-Russell tells The Verge. Plus, Americans love their prepackaged, triple-washed salad mixes, which up the chances of contamination. When the lettuce is pre-washed, the bacteria can also literally attach itself to the leaves, making it impossible for you to wash it off at home, says Jay-Russell.

Veggies can get contaminated in different ways. In the field, if there’s fresh manure containing E. coli, for example, or while they’re being processed in farms and facilities. The US Food and Drug Administration identified Harrison Farms of Yuma as one of the growers responsible for a recent E. Coli outbreak at a correctional facility in Alaska. But not all cases are tied to Harrison Farms, and the FDA is still investigating where exactly the romaine lettuce is picking up the dangerous bugs.

So it’s good to keep an eye out for the CDC advisories and check when the outbreak is officially over. Jay-Russell says she expects the outbreak to last about a month or a month and a half. In the meantime, she’s still enjoying lettuce and bagged salads. “Most of the time, they’re fine,” Jay-Russell says.