Romaine lettuce recalled after possible E. coli contamination

The voluntary recall affects over 3,000 heads of lettuce distributed in 20 states.

You might want to hold the salad at Thanksgiving dinner this year: A company has issued a voluntary recall of single heads of romaine lettuce due to a potential contamination.

On Nov. 6, Tanimura & Antle Inc. announced that its packaged, single heads of romaine lettuce packed on Oct. 15 and Oct. 16 had potentially been contaminated with E. coli. In total, the company is recalling 3,396 cartons from 20 states.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the recall is being conducted out of "an abundance of caution." The recall is based "on the test result of a random sample collected and analyzed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development as part of their routine sampling program."

"At Tanimura & Antle, food safety is a number one priority and the company prides itself on its preventative measures," said the company in an FDA press release. "It is unlikely that this product remains at retail establishments due to the shelf life of lettuce and the number of days that have passed. We are asking that if any of the packaged single head romaine described above is in the possession of consumers, retailers or distributors, the product be disposed of and not consumed."

On Nov. 10, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 12 people had been infected with the "outbreak strain" of E. coli in six states; five people were hospitalized. No deaths have been reported. The CDC investigation is ongoing to determine if people were sickened from eating the recalled Tanimura & Antle romaine lettuce.

Consumers with questions or concerns may call the Tanimura & Antle consumer hotline at 877-827-7388 Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

E. coli is a form of food poisoning which can cause a diarrheal illness. According to the FDA, "most healthy adults can recover completely within a week," but in some cases, especially for elderly adults and young children, people can develop a form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

Why is romaine lettuce susceptible to E. coli?

Lettuce recalls have happened several times over the past few years. In 2019, an E. coli outbreak tied to romaine lettuce spread to at least 23 states in November, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to specifically warn families against serving lettuce on Thanksgiving. In fall 2018, romaine lettuce from California was recalled. Pre-made and bagged salads have also been recalled at various points.

A report in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published in Sept. 2020, found that leafy greens have been linked to 40 outbreaks of a serious strain of E. coli from 2009 to 2018. Of those 40 cases, 54% were linked to romaine lettuce.

While the report didn't give any clear reason on why romaine lettuce was involved in so many E. coli outbreaks, Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who was not involved with the report, told NBC News at the time that one of the biggest problems is that the contamination can spread quickly.

"We know from earlier outbreaks that a little bit of contamination in the field can lead to cross contamination," he said. Once on the plant, contaminants are "very difficult to remove," and while washing your food helps, lettuce is usually eaten raw or undercooked, so "any contamination that makes it to the plate ends up in the gut."

This story was updated on Nov. 11, 2020 to include information from the CDC.