Is romaine lettuce safe to eat?

Julie Garden-Robinson NDSU Extension Service Food and Nutrition Specialist
Farm Forum

The other day, I paused at a fork in the nutrition road, so to speak.

I was making selections at a salad bar and was eyeing three different types of salad greens. Should I choose spinach, mixed greens or romaine lettuce?

All are excellent sources of phytochemicals (plant chemicals) that can help protect us from diseases. For example, spinach and romaine are particularly good sources of the pigments that our bodies convert to vitamin A for healthy skin and eyes. These leafy greens also contain other eye-health-promoting pigments (lutein and/or zeaxanthin) that may help prevent macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of blindness.

Usually I just pile on a variety of leafy greens, but today I was a bit torn.

Someone had asked me about the safety of romaine lettuce. Recently an outbreak had occurred, which Canadian officials linked to E. coli contamination on romaine lettuce; however, U.S. officials had not confirmed romaine lettuce as the source.

The outbreak has sickened at least 24 people in 15 states and has resulted in the death of one person from California since November 2017. Consumer Reports urged U.S. consumers to avoid romaine, but scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still were conducting lab work.

Tracing and confirming the cause of an outbreak to a particular source is very complex.

North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota were not among the states where illness had occurred. Romaine and other types of lettuce have a fairly short shelf life, and industry experts said the lettuce was out of the food supply by now.

I was holding up the salad bar line as I looked at the lettuce. I piled on a variety of leafy greens and continued my trip down the salad bar.

How does lettuce get contaminated to the point where multiple people in wide-ranging geographical regions can become ill? Our food is grown in many places, transported widely and handled all along the path.

Food can become contaminated in a variety of ways from field to fork. It could be animals running through a field, such as wild pigs that led to an E. coli outbreak linked with spinach in 2004. Contamination also can occur due to soil or water contamination, infected workers, contaminated processing equipment and many other ways all along the path from field to fork.

Some strains of E. coli are particularly deadly. Eating food contaminated with a fairly small number of E. coli particles, which are invisible to us, can cause flu-like illness including diarrhea and vomiting. Cooking can kill bacteria, but fresh lettuce typically is not cooked before serving.

In the worst-case scenario, people infected with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can develop a life-threatening condition called “hemolytic uremic syndrome” that can result in kidney failure and, potentially, death.

However, I don’t want to scare people from eating leafy greens. They’re good for us! If you need to limit leafy greens because of blood-thinning medications, follow your health-care provider’s advice. Be aware of food recalls and be sure to handle all food safely from the store to your home all the time.

Here are some tips:

• At the store, keep fresh fruits and vegetables away from fresh meats. Place meats in the plastic bag available in many stores, and keep in separate areas of your cart. Place vegetables and fresh meat in separate bags to take home.

• Before preparing food, wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with plenty of soap and warm water.

• Cut away bruised or damaged portions of produce.

• Rinse fruits and vegetables under cool running water (no soap) before cutting and preparing for recipes. However, ready-to-eat bagged lettuce does not need to be re-rinsed. Use a produce brush to scrub the exterior of fruits such as cantaloupe.

If you are interested in learning more about growing and safely handling food from “field to fork,” I invite you to a series of free web-based educational opportunities (Wednesday Weekly Webinars) from the NDSU Extension Service. The webinars launch Feb. 14 and will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. Central time. You will need a computer, tablet or phone with internet access to participate.

To register, visit to check out the topics, which include seed varieties for 2018, NDSU high-tunnel research results, genetically modified organisms, organic gardening, health benefits of gardening and gardening in small spaces. We also are offering a fruit and vegetable grower certification course in April.

Here’s a recipe that was a hit with our taste testers when our dietetic interns were testing recipes last fall. Add a variety of lettuce to your serving.

Lean and Spicy Tacos

1 c. tomatoes, diced

1 medium avocado, chopped

1 Tbsp. cilantro flakes

1 pound extra-lean ground beef

3 Tbsp. low-sodium taco seasoning mix

3 Tbsp. onion, minced

10 whole-wheat tortillas

2 c. shredded lettuce

1/2 c. fat-free shredded cheese

Optional: favorite taco sauce, refried beans or black beans

Mix tomatoes, avocado and cilantro flakes in small to medium-sized bowl. Spray frying pan with nonstick cooking spray and turn to medium heat. Add ground beef and taco seasoning. Use a spoon or spatula to break up ground beef. Cover pan and let cook for a few minutes, then add minced onions. Continue cooking and stirring occasionally until beef is browned and fully cooked (about 10 minutes). Warm tortillas in microwave about 15 seconds. Prepare each taco by placing beef in taco shell, then lettuce and tomato mixture. Sprinkle cheese on top and serve.

Makes 10 servings. Each serving has 240 calories, 8 grams (g) fat, 16 g protein, 26 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber and 410 milligrams sodium.

This receipe can help you include some leafy greens in your meal. NDSU photo