By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Although the CDC has not confirmed that romaine lettuce is the cause for the current US outbreak of E. coli O157, I can definitively say one thing, I am going to avoid eating Cesar salads for a while.

Think I am paranoid? Maybe. You would not be alone in questioning me.

The United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency commissioned a research study about E. coli and Veg in 2011.  They found that the public “awareness of the potential for vegetables to carry harmful bacteria was minimal,” and “overall threat posed by E. coli was perceived to be low.” About 46% of foodborne illness outbreaks in the US are caused by produce – that is almost half of outbreaks cause by something most people believe is safe.

The Public Health Agency of Canada and Consumer Reports both agree – avoid romaine lettuce for now. Both the CDC and PHAC have confirmed “[p]reliminary results show that the type of E. coli making people sick in both countries is closely related genetically, meaning the ill people are more likely to share a common source of infection.” PHAC outright states “investigation evidence suggests that there continues to be a risk of E. coli infections associated with the consumption of romaine lettuce.”

Can’t I Just Wash It?

Despite the warnings and the media hype, friends and colleagues have asked me the same question over and over, “Can’t you just wash it?”

No. You cannot.

At least not until we know the root cause of the contamination.  With a bacteria that can sicken you with a mere bite of food, an ounce of prevention is a good idea for anyone.

Consumer Reports has been pretty clear about their stance on this topic. According to its Director of Food Safety and Research James Rogers, Ph.D.:

“It is very difficult to remove bacteria from leafy greens. Bacteria have the ability to adhere to the surface of the leaves, and to get stuck in microscopic crevices.”

He isn’t the only one who is recommending a moment of extra caution in the wake of a mystery sourced outbreak. Our friends at Mother Nature Network have (for years) warned that E. coli is impossible to completely wash off of lettuces. “So while it is significant that a vinegar rinse could reduce the E.coli counts, there is a chance that you could still get sick from any lingering bacteria. Even more disturbing, E. coli can create a biofilm once it has attached to produce, which makes it hard to wash off. To top it off, E. coli can penetrate deep into the tissue of the vegetable or fruit…”, their 2013 article by Kim Harris comments.

Academia agrees with this consensus. Dr. Craig Hedberg, a food safety Professors at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health agrees that just washing will not give you a 100% guarantee of risk-free leaf eating.

“What we’ve found is some of this bacteria have to ability to adhere to produce tissues and sometimes they can get into the interior structure of the plant, so no amount of washing is going to get rid of bacteria that is inside the tissues of the plant itself,” he said.

Fancier still, local health departments also agree. Dr. Robert Mandrell, the head of the Produce Safety and Microbiology Unit at a United States Department of Agriculture Lab in Albany, CA and the investigator of the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to pre-washed spinach, had his own statement on the matter. He represented that he does not re-rinse washed and bagged salad before he eats it. “It’s very dry and I like it that way. The reason I say I’ll take this risk is because I know they got off what they could.” The article goes on to comment that STEC E. coli bind to leafy greens alike to how it binds to cells in the human gut.

How Then Does E. coli Get on My Salad?

Lettuce, like many other crops, is grown in the ground. If the seeds have been watered with contaminated water or fertilized with contaminated manure, the plant grows with the bacteria. The bacteria live and grow in the root system, in the leaves, and in the plant itself.

Scientists are still working out the details of this micro-phenomenon. In a New York Times article I read, published back in 2011, it was represented that “[s]cientists in the United States and Europe are working to identify the risky junctures in the supply chain, noting recently, for example, that bacterial counts in refrigerated greens may rise before the leaves look tainted and that E. coli may be integrated into the fiber of some vegetables, making washing them ineffective against E. coli.”

But… My New Year’s Resolution…

Not all lettuce is affected in this outbreak. There are still many wonderful varieties of greens you can keep in your diet to help soothe the misery of romaine absence. Kale, or instance, is a wonderful substitute for romaine in a Cesar Salad. Want to be daring? Arugula and wild greens are also good choices, with their peppery flavors. Want something milder like romaine? Butter lettuce, iceberg lettuce, and spinach are common, easy to find leafy greens. Want to just try something new, maybe a little more robust? Shave some Brussels sprouts, cut some purple cabbage, or even load up on mustard greens for the time being. Even some bok choy may surprise you.

The point is, there are still comparable substitutes in this time of concern. With the potential of contaminated E. coli-laden romaine still being sold in supermarkets and restaurants, it is highly probable more illnesses are coming. Young children, the elderly, and those with a weakened immune systems are at the greatest risk of becoming seriously ill and having long-term complications from E. coli infections.

If you cannot possibly live without romaine or want to test your chances, you can always cook it. By heating a food to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, E. coli is likely to be adequately killed so as not to cause illness.