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No Romaine Lettuce Is Safe To Eat, CDC Warns Consumers


You probably better cancel the Caesar salad you were planning for Thanksgiving dinner. The government's food safety watchdog is warning people to stop eating romaine lettuce. This is the third outbreak of disease in the last two years that's been linked to contaminated lettuce. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32 people in 11 U.S. states and another 18 people in Canada have been infected with an identical strain of E. coli bacteria. At least 13 have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported. Many of these people told investigators they ate romaine lettuce before they got sick, so the CDC is now recommending that consumers stop eating all romaine lettuce. The lettuce growers got official word about this at the same time as consumers.

TOM STENZEL: No, this is a very unusual announcement.

CHARLES: This is Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, an industry group. It's an extraordinarily broad warning, he says.

STENZEL: Doesn't matter what type of romaine, whether it's hearts of romaine or salads or pre-chopped. It doesn't matter where it's from.

CHARLES: The CDC has not been able to link the infections to any particular brand or supplier. So it's saying, we don't know which lettuce is contaminated; just stay away from all of it.

STENZEL: So we in the industry are doing our best, now that we've been informed, to put together experts from our own sector to try to identify and narrow this down.

CHARLES: The government may be reacting aggressively because just last spring, romaine lettuce caused another really big E. coli outbreak. More than 200 people got sick. Five people died. That outbreak was linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma region in Arizona, which supplies most of the country's lettuce during the winter. But Stenzel says this latest outbreak started before farmers in Yuma started harvesting their lettuce.

STENZEL: It couldn't be coming from that same region.

CHARLES: Stenzel says he agrees that it's the right move to pull all romaine lettuce off of supermarket shelves.

STENZEL: As hard as that is for an industry and retailers - but we've got to protect our consumers. And we need them to have confidence to come back, whether it's, you know, in a couple days or it's a week or more - come back to our products.

CHARLES: It won't be on the table for Thanksgiving, though.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.