Romaine lettuce has been on the food safety hit list for a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a consumer warning not to eat the leafy green due to E. coli contamination. Now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it’s OK to eat romaine as long as it’s not from a specific region in California. The agency is also introducing new labeling rules to help consumers figure out where their lettuce is coming from.
In a statement issued Monday, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., reveals that the agency's investigation found the contaminated lettuce came from certain areas of California that grow romaine lettuce over the summer months. The outbreak appears to be related to "end of season" romaine lettuce harvested from the Central Coast growing regions of central and northern California, he says.
So, you can eat romaine that’s grown outside of that area, as long as you can be certain it came from someplace else. Additionally, the FDA has requested that manufacturers use a new labeling system where romaine lettuce will be labeled with a harvest location and date. Lettuce can also be labeled as being hydroponically (grown without soil) or greenhouse grown. "If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it," Dr. Gottlieb says.
Food safety experts say the labeling rules are a step in the right direction, but they don't solve the underlying issue.
“In an outbreak situation like we have now, it is information that can help people make decisions to keep them safe,” Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D., an assistant professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, tells SELF.
Romaine is produced for mass consumption in different regions of the country at different times of year, he explains, and special labeling allows regions that weren’t selling romaine at the time of the outbreak to get to the market. And, crucially, it allows consumers to be more aware of what they're eating and where it came from.
Still, “this doesn’t make anything safer,” Chapman says. It doesn't change anything about the outbreak itself or the conditions that lead to the contamination. It just makes it easier to know if what you're buying is part of the outbreak or not.
But there's still a burden on the consumer to know what to look for on the label. “Do people know what defines the Central Coast of California? How can the average consumer know what this means?” food safety expert Darin Detwiler, Ph.D., director of the Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program at Northeastern University, tells SELF. For someone who might be on the edge of the affected region, it would be easy for them to mistakenly assume that the produce they're buying isn't included in the recall, he points out.
Leafy greens can come with foodborne illness risks, but this is not an excuse to skip your veggies altogether.
Leafy greens have been linked with several foodborne outbreaks in the past few years—and romaine was just part of a separate outbreak in the spring that killed five people. So, how are you supposed to keep yourself safe?
“When it comes to leafy greens, they are a riskier food than something like beets or sweet potatoes, that is, produce that we cook,” Chapman says. “We’re never going to get to a point of zero risk when it comes to leafy greens for many reasons.” Those include easily contaminated irrigation systems for crops, production issues, and the fact that we often eat leafy greens uncooked, eliminating a kill step for these bacteria in the process, he explains.
It's impossible to completely eliminate every potential food safety risk, as SELF wrote previously. But our current regulations have some real issues, including a lack of funding that could help prevent outbreaks like this one. So, until we have a better system in place, it's probably a good idea to exercise an abundance of caution around food in general, and salads in particular, Detwiler says.
Although we should all be mindful of food safety protocols, they're especially important for young children, elderly people, pregnant people, and those with weakened immune systems because they're at a higher risk of developing complications from foodborne illnesses. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat fresh produce given that it comes with essential nutrients, Chapman says. It's just a reminder to be extra cautious about where your produce comes from, particularly if you're in one of those vulnerable groups (if you’re pregnant, for example).
One thing you can do, Detwiler says, is skip the bagged greens and ready-to-eat salads and buy a whole head of lettuce instead. The different ingredients in bagged products may actually come from separate places and suppliers, which increases the odds of contamination, he says. If you’re just buying one intact head of lettuce, you at least know that it came from one place.
And stick with reputable brands and stores if you can, Chapman says. “It’s good to buy from grocery stores and producers that can demonstrate that they require their suppliers to meet some kind of food safety standard,” he says. Keeping on top of recall notices from the FDA, as well as becoming more aware of the inherent risks of eating fresh foods, can help keep everything in perspective, and you from getting sick.