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‘Throw out’ all romaine lettuce, CDC advises, as E. coli warning expands

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated their warning about a multistate outbreak of E. coli. Formerly linked to just chopped romaine lettuce, the agency has expanded their recommendation to throw away all romaine lettuce — including whole heads of romaine and hearts of romaine, plus chopped romaine and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce — from the Yuma, Arizona growing region.

“Do not buy or eat romaine lettuce at a grocery store or restaurant unless you can confirm it is not from the Yuma, Arizona, growing region,” the agency warned, going on to state that, “Unless the source of the product is known, consumers anywhere in the United States who have any store-bought romaine lettuce at home should not eat it and should throw it away, even if some of it was eaten and no one has gotten sick.”

If you have chopped lettuce in your refrigerator and you are not sure if it is romaine, you should still throw it away, the CDC says.

The expanded warning is based on information from newly reported illnesses in Alaska, who reported eating lettuce from whole heads of romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region. At least 53 people in 16 states have gotten sick from eating contaminated lettuce since March 31, and 31 of them were hospitalized for illnesses linked to the lettuce. Five of them developed a type of potentially life-threatening kidney failure.

The lettuce seems to be coming from the Yuma, Ariz., region, and it is specifically contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. E. coli generally causes severe stomach cramps, diarrhea that is often bloody, and vomiting; it may also cause a fever. Like many other food-borne illnesses, some infections are mild, whereas others can be dangerous.

Recalls of bagged greens seem to be happening often lately. In mid-April, more than 8,700 pounds of bagged ready-to-eat salads were recalled due to possible E. coli contamination. In December, the CDC warned of a multistate outbreak of E. coli linked to leafy greens, and in October, the FDA issued a recall of several types of salad kits due to potential listeria contamination.

This raises a bigger question: Is it safe to eat these products? A few things about bagged greens make them slightly risky, food safety expert Darin Detwiler, PhD, director of the Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industry program at Northeastern University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. One is that people typically do not wash bagged lettuce or cook it; washing could lower the risk that these pathogens would be passed on. (However, Detwiler points out that even washing your greens does not guarantee getting rid of food-borne pathogens.)

Bagged greens are also handled more than lettuce and other greens you find in your grocery store’s produce aisle — and that exposes the bagged greens  to potential contamination, Elliot T. Ryser, PhD, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. His research has found that E. coli can “readily transfer” during processing leafy greens. Even though sanitizer is used in this processing, it is not 100 percent effective in getting rid of the spread of E. coli, he says.

Although eating greens that have not gone through this processing step may lower your risk slightly, ultimately, eating raw fruits and vegetables, in general, comes with some risk, Benjamin Chapman, PhD, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. If you are immunocompromised, it might be better to cook your greens before eating them, he says. For everyone else, you are probably OK to keep doing what you’re doing. “The likelihood of becoming ill from fresh-cut produce is still extremely low,” Ryser says.

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