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Don't eat romaine lettuce because of E. coli, the CDC now warns

The new guidance includes whole heads and hearts of romaine lettuce, in addition to chopped romaine

by Maggie Fox and Marguerite Ward /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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No one should eat romaine lettuce — or any lettuce at all — unless they can be sure it’s not from Arizona, federal health officials said Friday.

More than 50 people have become sick in an outbreak of E. coli food poisoning linked to romaine lettuce — and now an additional eight people at a correctional facility in Alaska have also gotten ill, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new warning. The latest cases of E. coli infection in Alaska were linked to romaine grown in Arizona.

“Based on new information from Alaska, CDC is expanding its warning to cover all types of romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region,” the CDC said in its update.

“This warning now includes whole heads and hearts of romaine lettuce, in addition to chopped romaine and salads and salad mixes containing romaine.”

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Major grocery stores, including Costco, Kroger and Walmart, have been pulling romaine lettuce products off their shelves in response to the CDC warning, according to Consumer Reports.

To date, the agency has not identified a common grower, supplier, distributor or brand.

The states affected by the E. coli outbreak are:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • Washington
This map shows how many E. coli cases linked to chopped romaine lettuce are in each of the 16 affected states, as of April 18, 2018. There are eight additional illnesses in Alaska, the CDC said Friday. Roque Ruiz / CDC

'Very virulent strain'

The current outbreak is causing a higher rate of hospitalizations than usual for E. coli and health officials are trying to determine why this outbreak is more severe. No deaths have been reported.

“This is a very virulent strain of bacteria,” James Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports, told TODAY. “This is nothing to play with.”

Rogers, who heads a team consisting of a food microbiologist, researchers and reporters, said it's not always easy to identify romaine in a salad or where it's from.

“Sometimes, our experts say, romaine lettuce isn’t always included as an ingredient in mixed salad bags, or the location where the lettuce is from isn’t listed,” Rogers said.

“And some people can’t really tell the difference between romaine lettuce and other types of lettuce when looking at a bag of salad,” he added.

“This is a very virulent strain of bacteria"

“This is a very virulent strain of bacteria"

If you have store-bought romaine lettuce at home, including whole heads and hearts of romaine, chopped romaine, and salads and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce, throw it away, the CDC said. Even if you've eaten some of it and didn't get sick, don't eat any more of it — throw it away.

“My standard is always, ‘Would I advise me and my family to dine that way?’ And I wouldn’t,” said Rogers.

If you've had romaine recently, "Clean all fridge, counter, and food surfaces with warm soapy water," the CDC said.

When will it be safe to eat romaine again?

It may be some time. It can take weeks to track down the source of a food poisoning outbreak. Food is often shipped to central plants from various farms, where it is processed, mixed together, packaged, and redistributed.

Last winter, Consumer Reports criticized the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration for not warning people away from romaine lettuce when there was a similar outbreak, but the CDC said at the time that it couldn’t pinpoint what type of salad green might be responsible.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include diarrhea, severe stomach cramps and vomiting.

The current illnesses are separate from an E. coli outbreak in December and January linked to leafy greens or romaine, which caused dozens of illnesses in the U.S. and Canada and killed at least one person. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that outbreak — its source was not identified in the U.S. — over in January.

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