Not sure what kind of lettuce you’re eating? You better just throw it out, the CDC says.
Photo: Matthew Mead (AP)

It’s shaping to be one of the most convenient excuses to avoid ordering a salad yet: An outbreak of Escherichia coli linked to chopped romaine lettuce has now spread to 16 states and sickened over 50 people since mid-March, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of the latest update, reported Wednesday, at least 53 people are thought to fallen ill from this particular nasty type of E. coli, known as O157:H7. Nine more people have been hospitalized, bringing the total number of hospitalizations up to 31. And five people have developed a serious complication that causes kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. Fortunately, there have been no deaths so far.

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Idaho and Pennsylvania have reported the largest number of cases, 10 and 12 respectively. But cases have been spotted in Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and Washington.

The current timeline of the outbreak is from March 13 to April 6, but it’s possible more cases that occurred after March 29 will show up, since it can take two to three weeks for them to be tracked down by public health officials.

Most kinds of E. coli bacteria that we encounter and harbor in our guts are harmless or even beneficial. But of the bad seeds around, E. coli O157:H7 tends to be one of the worst. That’s because these strains produce a biotoxin called Shiga originally discovered in the bacterium that most often causes dysentery.

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Symptoms of O157:h7 include horrible stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting. Around 5 percent to 15 percent of sickened people go on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which happens when our red blood cells are wiped out en masse. About 5 percent of HUS cases are fatal.

Though the contaminated lettuce appears to originate from the Yuma, Arizona region, the CDC hasn’t named a common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand as an source of the outbreak. But a New Jersey woman who alleges she suffered kidney damage as a result of her infection filed a lawsuit this week against Panera Bread, where several cases are thought to have occurred, as well as its lettuce supplier, Freshway Foods. Freshway Foods has also issued a recall of its ready-to-eat salad products produced from April 9 to 12, though these specific products haven’t yet been implicated in any cases.

The CDC is warning everyone with store-bought chopped romaine lettuce in their fridge to immediately throw it out, while anyone who is unsure about what kind of lettuce they’re munching on should put the salad fork down and stop eating it, just to be safe. That said, there have no cases tied to eating whole heads or hearts of romaine. Restaurants and retailers have also been told to throw out any chopped romaine from the Yuma, Arizona region.

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“Before purchasing romaine lettuce at a grocery store or eating it at a restaurant, confirm with the store or restaurant that it is not chopped romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region. If you cannot confirm the source of the romaine lettuce, do not buy it or eat it,” the CDC warned.

Anyone who’s come down with symptoms of a stomach bug are advised to seek medical help if their diarrhea lasts for longer for three days, becomes bloody, and/or is accompanied by an inability to pee, uncontrollable vomiting, or especially high fever.