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Why Is the US Government Silent on Romaine Lettuce E. Coli Outbreak

U.S. and Canadian citizens have been urged to avoid romaine lettuce until the source of a recent E. coli outbreak has been located. NBC reports that Consumer Reports, a well-known periodical and advocacy group also called out U.S. government agencies for their lethargic response to an outbreak that has killed at least one person and sent 58 to the hospital. 

In Canada, the Public Health Agency pinpointed romaine lettuce last month. The CDC in the U.S. is still gathering information and “is unable to recommend whether U.S. residents should avoid a particular food.”

Leafy greens such as romaine lettuce are rarely cooked, a process which can kill E. coli and salmonella. Consumer Reports was critical of the U.S. response. James Roger, Consumer Report’s food safety director, stated that “even though we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that romaine lettuce is the cause of the E. coli outbreak in the U.S., a greater degree of caution is appropriate given that romaine lettuce is almost always consumed raw.”

Another advocacy group, Consumers Union, was also critical. “The FDA should follow the lead of the Canadian government and immediately warn the public about this risk. The available data strongly suggest that romaine lettuce is the source of the U.S. outbreak. If so, and people aren’t warned, more may get sick.”

Unraveling the logistics of a food poisoning outbreak can take weeks. A product such as romaine lettuce is grown at multiple locations, shipped to a centralized location for processing, mixed with produce from other farms and distributed across a vast network. Early results suggest that the E. Coli strain in Canada is closely related to the one in the U.S. 

Consumer Reports recommended taking no chances with romaine lettuce and to discard it immediately. Not surprisingly, the United Fresh Produce Association had a slightly different take and argued that the responsible lettuce has probably long since been disposed of because of the product’s limited shelf life. 

Romaine lettuce is a head-forming lettuce and one of the four popular lettuce varieties, alongside crisphead, butterhead and leaf lettuce. It is a popular ingredient in salads, sandwiches, wraps and green smoothies. The Greeks and Romans not only used romaine lettuce as food, but also valued it as medicine because of its therapeutic properties. Romaine lettuce is also a focal point in the Passover Seder, because of the leaves’ bitter flavor. This symbolizes Maror, the bitterness of the slavery endured in Egypt.

If you want to avoid the vagaries and hazards of the grocery store supply chain, consider growing your own romaine lettuce this spring. It is never too early to plan ahead and romaine lettuce has a number of amazing health benefits. Despite the recall, romaine lettuce makes an excellent ingredient and probably should not be forever banished from your kitchen. If you are looking for a good use of romaine lettuce I recommend this amazing recipe. My wonderful egg, bacon and nori roll ups with avocado and lettuce is a perfect way to enjoy romaine lettuce again.