Washing produce won’t remove E. coli bacteria

If your New Year’s resolutions included healthy habits like eating more salads, you probably stocked up on lettuce. Unfortunately, that same lettuce may make you sick.

The latest E. coli outbreak has killed at least two people and sickened more than 60 in the U.S. and Canada. Canadian health officials linked the deadly E. coli outbreak to romaine lettuce. However, U.S. officials are still investigating and have not named a specific source yet.

CDC photo
Flickr | Raed Mansour

The specific timeframe the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating is late November through Dec. 8. They are reviewing cases in at least 13 states, according to CNBC. Because lettuce can be kept for weeks, there’s a risk that contaminated lettuce has been consumed more recently than Dec. 8.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, most of the patients sickened with E. coli infection symptoms in Canada between late November and early December reported eating romaine lettuce before they became ill. The agency shared with The New York Times that, “Individuals reported eating romaine lettuce at home, as well as in prepared salads purchased at grocery stores, restaurants and fast food chains.”

romaine salad photo
Flickr | Erika_Herzog

How To Stay Safe

There have been no official product recalls in the U.S. yet, so you may have contaminated produce in your refrigerator right now. Generally, lettuce is more vulnerable to bacterial contamination than other produce. Specifically, Consumer Reports says consumers should avoid romaine lettuce. That includes any organic and conventional romaine lettuce, as well as pre-made salads containing it.

romaine lettuce photo
Flickr | Ruth and Dave

Unfortunately, even washing lettuce in water as most of us do isn’t enough.

“It is very difficult to remove bacteria from leafy greens,” James Rogers, Ph.D., director of Food Safety and Research at Consumer Reports says. “Bacteria have the ability to adhere to the surface of the leaves, and to get stuck in microscopic crevices.” E. coli has unique survival tactics that make it impossible to wash away. It produces a protective biofilm that encases the bacteria and helps it adhere to a surface. Also, E. coli can penetrate into produce, burrowing below the surface.


Cool running water and vinegar solutions can reduce, but not completely eliminate, bacteria. Canada’s public health site also suggests:

  • Washing your hands in warm water for at least 20 seconds before handling lettuce.
  • Discarding all the outer leaves of the lettuce.
  • Rinsing the produce until no traces of dirt remain.


“Solutions designed to wash produce have not shown any advantage of reducing pathogens on produce over using cool running water,” Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education in Washington, told WebMD. The only way effective way to eradicate E. coli is cooking the produce. Since romaine lettuce can’t take the heat, that’s not a good option.

Symptoms Of An E. Coli Infection

While some types of E. coli are harmless, or in some cases, beneficial to your digestive tract, certain strains—such as O157 that the Canadian officials identified—can make you very sick.

Common symptoms of an E. coli infection include fever, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. That’s definitely not a pleasant way to start the New Year.


While we’re waiting for officials to sound in on the state of leafy greens in the U.S., you may want to opt for these healthy lunches instead of a potentially sickening salad.

RELATED: Here are some ways to keep your produce fresh for longer:

According to the CDC, there were multi-state E. coli outbreaks in 2016 linked to three products: flour, beef and alfalfa sprouts.

flour photo
Flickr | isabel*la

While the beef and alfalfa sprout outbreaks were limited to several states, the flour outbreak affected 63 people in 24 states with 17 requiring hospitalization. The source is believed to be flour from a General Mills facility in Kansas City, Missouri.