The romaine scare is officially over — here's how to stay safe in the future

Greek salad with fresh vegetables, feta cheese and black olives in a blue plate on white wooden table. Top view flat lay background.
Wash your lettuce thoroughly to rinse away potential pathogens. (Image: elena_hramowa/iStock/GettyImages)

We all breathed a collective sigh of relief after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the romaine lettuce scare is officially over. Phew!

“The romaine lettuce being sold and served today is NOT the romaine linked to illnesses,” the CDC tweeted. The contaminated lettuce, linked to a farm in Yuma, Arizona, resulted in 172 cases of E. coli in 32 states and led to one death.

If this latest outbreak has left you a little lettuce-shy (we don’t blame you), there are things you can do to reduce your risk of consuming contaminated greens. Read on for four tips from food-safety insider Jennifer Quinlan, Ph.D., a food microbiologist on faculty at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

You should take your lettuce for a spin.

One reason leafy greens end up linked to more multistate outbreaks (seven since 2010) than other fruits and veggies: The leaves in those leafy greens (think spinach, arugula, romaine and more) offer so many places for bacteria to hide. To get your greens clean, Quinlan recommends a lettuce spinner. Use cold water to rinse away potential pathogens and keep greens crisp. As for those sprays and washes that claim to get produce clean, Quinlan says she hasn’t seen any research that they “significantly increase the safety.”

If it says prewashed, don’t rewash.

Contrary to what you may have heard, packaged lettuces and vegetables labeled as prewashed should not be washed again, says Quinlan. “Any company producing ready-to-eat produce on a large scale is going to be following industry standards for washing,” she explains. That includes a chlorinated rinse meant to kill bacteria. If a contaminant survives the superpowered cleaning (which does happen on very rare occasions, says Quinlan), your rewashing won’t do any good. More than that, rewashing increases the chance of cross-contaminating your lettuce with the bacteria (from, say, raw chicken) that could be lingering in your kitchen.

Maybe don’t eat sprouts. Ever.

Forget worrying about getting sick from leafy greens. Since 1996, sprouts have been linked to at least 30 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. “I don’t know any food microbiologist that eats sprouts,” says Dr. Quinlan. “The reason these little seedlings are so unpopular? To grow sprouts, seeds are placed in a warm, moist environment — so, basically, an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. The Food and Drug Administration also writes on its site that bacteria can get into the seeds through cracks before the sprouts are even grown. Once this occurs, these bacteria are nearly impossible to wash out,” the FDA warns, noting that pregnant women, young children and anyone with a weakened immune system should avoid raw sprouts (including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts).

When it comes to organic versus nonorganic, it’s basically a wash.

There are plenty of valid reasons to buy organic fruits and veggies, but fear of contaminants (like E. coli and salmonella) shouldn’t be one of them. “Organic produce can be just as safe, but there’s also no reason to think it’s safer,” says Quinlan. Same goes for locally grown produce you might find at your neighborhood farmers market. Typical sources of contamination affect all types of farms — small and large, organic and nonorganic — and include water runoff, pests (such as rodents and birds) and unsafe handling by any person who may come into contact with the produce along the way.

Still not convinced organic is just as prone to contamination as nonorganic? From 1992 to 2014 there were 18 outbreaks caused by organic foods (including eight linked to produce), according to a study in the Journal of Food Protection. If you are concerned about organic food, click here for more information!

What Do YOU Think?

Do you worry about pathogens in your produce? What do you do to try to reduce your risk of getting sick? Is there anything you’ll start doing after reading Quinlan’s advice?

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