If you accidentally eat some Romaine lettuce this holiday season, the chances you will get sick from it are extremely low. In fact, so far, the toxigenic strain of E Coli bacteria found in Romaine have reportedly sickened only 32 people in 11 states, leading to 13 hospitalizations and just a single case of kidney failure.
So why did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), issue such a broad, across-the-board warning for all of us to avoid and discard all Romaine lettuce, when there is such a tiny risk of becoming ill?
The reason, according to FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, is because the source has been narrowed to a specific food source — Romaine — and the chances of more people becoming sick from it remains. In other words, better to overreact than to underreact, better for everyone to forego Romaine than for even a single additional person to become quite ill or risk kidney damage (hemolytic uremic syndrome).
On Friday morning, Dr. Gottlieb tweeted an update, “The romaine implicated in the current outbreak is likely from California based on going growing and harvesting patterns. The goal now is to withdraw the product that’s at risk of being contaminated from the market, and then re-stock the market. New romaine, from different growing regions, including Florida and Arizona, will soon be harvested. We’re working with growers and distributors on labeling produce for location and harvest date and possibly other ways of informing consumers that the product is post-purge.” Dr. Gottlieb added that an important goal was to make this type of identifiable, traceable labeling the new standard.
FDA and CDC are putting public health first and emphasizing science. They are staying ahead of an emerging health risk, as they should. They also are developing a new system of tracking and labeling food, which makes perfect sense.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where the news media quickly fans the flames of fear. By being so diligent and accountable, our health agencies (via the media) also unintentionally send the message that a particular food product — in this case, Romaine lettuce — is unsafe when, in fact, if you ate Romaine, the chances that you would become sick remains astronomically small.
It is difficult to juggle the demands of science and public health along with a public platform. Dr. Gottlieb, in particular, does an excellent job of it, though in this case the risk of a fear response is high.
The larger concern is the emergence and spread of toxic bacteria in a multi-state food system in which produce is grown in one area, packaged in another, and then sold throughout the country. Bacteria harbored in the intestines of animals spread to the groundwater, which may infect our produce. Vigilance and careful labeling may help to curtail this problem, as will cutting back on the overuse of antibiotics in commercially raised poultry and cows.
In the meantime, while it may be somewhat prudent to temporarily cut back on the use of Romaine in our salads as the CDC and FDA work to pin down an exact source, the fear response is counterproductive and erodes the gains of science.
When it comes to food and your health, Romaine is one of the good guys. We must remember this even as we applaud the important work of our public health agencies.
Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent.