Food & Drink

E. coli outbreak update: It might be safe to buy and eat romaine lettuce again

Romaine lettuce
Romaine lettuce

Though the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak sickened more people in more states over the last week, the true news in Wednesday's CDC update concerns the romaine lettuce.

It might be safe to eat again.

Romaine lettuce of all varieties from the Yuma, Arizona, region has been blamed as the source of this outbreak. But the last shipment of romaine from Yuma left on April 16 and the growing season there is over.

"It is unlikely that any romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region is still available in stores or restaurants due to its 21-day shelf life," the Centers for Disease Control said Wednesday. "It takes two to three weeks between when a person becomes ill with E. coli and when the illness is reported to CDC. The most recent illnesses reported to CDC started when romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region was likely still available in stores, restaurants, and in peoples’ homes."

The most recent cases reported by the CDC started May 2, part of the 23 new cases across the nation in the last week, bringing the total to 172. Of the 157 people who were ill that the CDC has information on, 75 have been hospitalized and 20 have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the form of kidney failure that can be fatal. The death in California remains the only one in this outbreak.

California still has the most cases, 39, followed by Pennsylvania (21); Minnesota (12); Idaho (11); New Jersey, Montana, Arizona, Alaska (eight each); Washington (seven); Ohio (six); New York and Michigan (five each); Georgia (four); Wisconsin, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Colorado (three each); Connecticut, Illinois, North Dakota (two each); Florida, Texas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia (one each).

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While the FDA and CDC haven't been able to trace the outbreak beyond just the general area of the Yuma region, food safety attorney Bill Marler is trying to track back via lawsuit.

Marler, representing 87 clients in this outbreak, 11 of which developed HUS, has filed suits in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Georgia and Arizona against the restaurants who served his clients (two Panera Breads, two Red Lobsters and Papa Murphy's). This could lead to restaurants giving up suppliers and suppliers having to disclose their lettuce's chain of custody.

“With illnesses ranging from mid-March to early May and now hitting 172 – 20 with kidney failure and one death -- I fear that the FSMA regulations and the voluntary rules of the Leafy Green Marketing Agreements have been a failure," Marler said via e-mail to The Miami Herald. "I think growers, processors, regulators and consumers need to decide if mass produced romaine lettuce – especially the wash, chopped bagged variety – can be produced safely at all.”