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News: E. coli Illnesses From Romaine Hit 197, but End of Outbreak Appears to Be Over

News: E. coli Illnesses From Romaine Hit 197, but End of Outbreak Appears to Be Over

The CDC says that the romaine lettuce available now is not linked to illness.

As the reported number of illnesses from E. coli linked to romaine lettuce has reached 197, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says it is likely safe to eat romaine again.

Since the scare began in March 2018, at least 210 people in 36 states have been infected with the same strain of E. coli 0157:H7, which can produce a dangerous toxin in the body called Shiga. Eighty-nine people have been hospitalized thus far, with five deaths reported. There have also been 26 reported cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure associated with the infection.

Is the outbreak really over?
While the exact origin of the outbreak is still being investigated, officials suspect the tainted romaine had come from the Yuma, Arizona growing region, where most of the romaine sold in the United States during the winter is grown.

But according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Arizona harvest season is over and the last shipments of romaine lettuce from the Yuma region were harvested on April 16, 2018. And because of the 21-day shelf life commonly associated with romaine lettuce, that means it’s unlikely that any romaine from the Yuma region is still available for consumption in people’s homes, grocery stores or restaurants.

Why is the number of illnesses still going up?
There’s a lag time between when people are sickened, when they report those illnesses and when the CDC publishes those numbers. According to the CDC, it takes between two and three weeks from the time a person becomes sick with E. coli and when that illness is reported to the CDC. The current CDC numbers therefore reflect illnesses reported when romaine products from the suspect Yuma growing region were still available in supermarkets and restaurants. Some illnesses that occurred after May 6, 2018, may still have not yet been reported.

Know the signs of infection
The CDC is still advising consumers to be on the lookout for illnesses and the FDA is continuing to urge consumers with symptoms of E. coli 0157:H7 infection to contact their healthcare providers.

Those symptoms usually begin three to four days after exposure with mild stomach pain or diarrhea. As the infection progresses, signs may include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea with blood, vomiting and a low fever.

Most people get better on their own within five to seven days, but if diarrhea lasts for more than three days or comes with a high fever, bloody stool or excessive vomiting that prevents you from keeping liquids down and causes you to pass very little urine, you should call your doctor.

Five to 10 percent of people with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli develop HUS, which is potentially life-threatening. People younger than 5 and older than 65 as well as those with compromised immune systems are most susceptible. If you experience signs of HUS—decreased frequency of urination, extreme tiredness or loss of color in the cheeks or inner eyelids—seek medical help immediately.

So can I eat romaine again?
The CDC tweeted on May 16: “The romaine lettuce being sold and served today is NOT the romaine linked to illnesses.”

The FDA seconded that notion the next day: “Consumers can be confident that romaine currently available for purchase is not part of the investigation.”

And in a blog post on May 31, the FDA said that any contaminated lettuce from the Yuma growing region “has already worked its way through the food supply and is no longer available for consumption. So any immediate risk is gone.” 

Significantly, the CDC is no longer advising consumers to throw away romaine lettuce if they can’t confirm its origin, as they had been doing in previous months.

Meanwhile, the spring lettuce harvest has shifted away from Arizona to California over the past few months. In other words—unless there’s an as-yet-unreported problem with California lettuce—it’s probably safe to eat romaine again.

That said, if you’ve had romaine in your refrigerator, it still makes sense to wash and sanitize drawers or shelves where it was stored and to keep following smart food safety habits.

Meanwhile, the FDA continues to investigate the source of the tainted romaine lettuce, thus far noting that the illnesses can’t be pinned to a single grower, harvester, processor or distributor. Pinpointing the source will be a tall order, as the contamination could have occurred at any point in the production process of the lettuce, from growing, harvesting, packaging, to distribution.

You can track the latest outbreak information at cdc.gov and fda.gov.

Medically reviewed in June 2018.

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