Should we be afraid of Romaine?
Scary headlines often take a real food concern and create fear far greater than is warranted. But how do we know when the fear is real and when it’s not?
A case in point is the recent romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak. The outbreak has now been declared officially over by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. But not until over 200 people from 36 states were sickened. The outbreak was identified as originating from romaine lettuce produced in the Yuma, Arizona area. Beginning on April 13, supermarkets and restaurants were alerted not to sell or serve lettuce from Yuma and consumers were advised to discard any romaine lettuce they had in their homes.
Obviously, caution was paramount. We are fortunate in the U.S. to have the safest food supply in the world so government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration quickly leapt into action to make sure that the tainted lettuce was removed from the food supply.
When alerts such as this come from reputable government agencies, consumers absolutely should listen closely and follow their advice. In the case of this outbreak, if you read past the scary headlines, government officials were clearly limiting the alert to romaine produced in the Yuma region only. Meanwhile, leafy greens industry groups were updating consumers that most romaine currently being sold in stores and restaurants was from California and not involved in the outbreak. Both groups were advising consumers not to eat romaine unless they could confirm it wasn’t grown in Yuma – because that was the right thing to do.
Naturally, memes like the one shown here began circulating like wildfire on the Internet and social media, invoking fear of any romaine no matter where it was produced and jokingly giving consumers the go ahead to consume as much chocolate as they like!
As a registered dietitian working as a communications consultant to the food, nutrition and agriculture industries, I address misinformation and sensational headlines about food issues daily. From red meat, dairy and gluten to sugar, artificial sweeteners and farming practices, I attempt to allay concerns people have about eating perfectly safe food for which there is no scientific evidence of harm.
Even with the safest food supply in the world, an occasional outbreak of food-borne illness occurs in the U.S. But this is by far the exception and not the rule. As well as USDA and FDA regulations for farming and food processing, additional safety nets are in place to further assure safety and decrease health risk. And that’s where the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) comes in.
Coincidentally, in March of this year, I had the opportunity to meet with an LGMA representative and was excited to learn about their program to ensure leafy green safety.
The majority of leafy greens in the U.S. are grown and harvested under the LGMA program to minimize food safety risks on the farm. It verifies farming practices using government audits and requires that members be in 100% compliance at all times. This includes a creating a written food safety plan, testing irrigation water and monitoring worker practices, like proper handwashing. In fact, many major restaurant and supermarket chains require the LGMA certification for leafy greens they purchase. Every day, over 130 million servings of leafy greens are safely produced under this mandatory government food safety program.
In the aftermath of this outbreak, the produce industry has created a special task force to examine how romaine came to be the source of illnesses. The leafy greens community is committed to producing a safe product and we need to trust they will continue to improve on their already stellar safety record. No one wants these kinds of tragic outbreaks to occur – least of all leafy greens farmers.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, leafy greens are my go-to vegetable. I enjoy them every day and recommend them to others, too. Leafy greens are nutrient-rich, delivering vitamins A and K, folate, potassium, iron, calcium and fiber yet are low in fat and calories. And they have an exceptional safety record because lettuce farmers are committed to growing safe food. So be assured that romaine is safe to go back on your plate.
About the author. Neva Cochran is a registered dietitian nutritionist who also work as a communications consultant to promote science-based nutrition messages to help people enjoy eating, not fear food. You can learn more on her website titled “Eating Beyond the Headlines.”