Romaine lettuce: why it’s hard to keep it safe from E. coli and other bacteria

Romaine lettuce: why it’s hard to keep it safe from E. coli and other bacteria

America tries to eat its vegetables, so the recent romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak has put everyone from Caesar salad fans to those who barely tolerate a splash of greens in a taco on high alert.

But how did these seemingly innocent little leaves turn deadly?

The Centers for Disease Control has tallied 121 cases in 25 states stemming from the romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Ariz., region, including one death and 52 hospitalizations. Fourteen people suffered kidney failure. The victims are between one and 88 years old.

We’ve sent men to the moon. Many of us carry tiny computers in our pockets. So why can’t we keep romaine lettuce safe and clean? Here’s some reasons why lettuce is so vulnerable and why tracking down the source of a bacterial outbreak can be difficult.

America hearts lettuce, especially women
Thanks to the national wellness trend embraced by healthy Millennials and aging Baby Boomers, the consumption of fresh vegetables, as opposed to frozen or shelf-stable varieties, is on the rise. Adding to that is the growing popularity of salad-centric restaurants, like Tender Greens and Sweetgreen, and the increasing inclusion of salads on the menus of fast-food chains.

According to global market research firm Mintel’s most recent data, 70% of vegetables sold in the U.S. in 2016 were fresh produce, up 13% from 2011, but growing at a 39% clip since then is fresh-cut salad, now 11% of what’s in stores. Fresh veggies are forecast to grow 9% by 2021 and fresh-cut salads, 33%.

“Household vegetable purchase is universal and highly driven by fresh product purchases with 97% of consumers purchasing fresh options in the past month,” Mintel said.

The group most impacted by the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak is women. According to the CDC, 63% of the people sickened as a result of this episode are female. Chalk that up to women being bigger salad eaters than men.

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