Salad Panic

The CDC finally gets people interested in lettuce.

A field of lettuce
Paul Sakuma / AP

These are nervous days for salad enthusiasts. The green, beating heart of the American salad, romaine lettuce, has been ripped from shelves and refrigerators at the insistence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to a small but potentially serious outbreak.

On Friday the same agency that has long urged people to eat more leafy greens issued an alert to Americans: “Do not buy or eat romaine lettuce at a grocery store or restaurant unless you can confirm it is not from the Yuma, Arizona, growing region.”

This is not always easy to do. The warning calls to mind the ongoing issue that most of us have no idea where our food comes from—a screed for another day. But for now, Yuma is the region to which officials have traced a potentially deadly E. coli fecal bacterial contamination in the supply chain.

Over the course of the past month, at least 70 cases have been reported to the CDC. None have yet proven deadly, but the potential is there. The contaminant is a notorious strain of E. coli known as O157:H7. This is the only strain of E. coli most doctors can name, and they take it seriously. So far the numbers are limited, and no deaths have been reported. But 31 people have been hospitalized, according to the CDC. Five of these have developed the most feared complication, known as hemolytic-uremic syndrome, in which a person’s immune system is triggered by the infection and inappropriately targets the body’s own red blood cells, leading to kidney failure and, potentially, death.

Awkward questions arise when people are told that eating something as innocuous as romaine lettuce could cause their kidneys to shut down and their bowels to hemorrhage. And the warning is not in reference to the sketchy lettuce that one might purchase in a back alley or in a small plastic bag at a nightclub. The lettuce in question has been sold in restaurants and packaged in reputable groceries.

By Friday evening this news was the most popular story at national outlets like Time and The Washington Post—the latter having sent a push alert to readers’ phones. All around the streets of New York I felt uncertainty in the eyes of people wondering what this all means. The sidewalks were littered with discarded romaine, some residents of the West Village having simply opened their windows, torn open the bags, and let it rain onto the streets below.

No, this part I imagined—but I couldn’t have been the only one. The national imagination was running wild on Twitter. This would have never happened with a story telling people that salad remains a good and healthy food option. Fear, though, brings attention. Moments that capture the collective consciousness like these can sometimes be good opportunities to take stock of how we’re allocating our own attention and fear. As potentially significant as this outbreak could be—and I don’t mean to minimize it—it pales in relation to known, ongoing, preventable dangers.

At the moment the utility of this story may be to jolt us out of complacency about the kinds of risks we come to accept as background noise. In just the last few months, influenza has killed 156 kids in the United States. Around 10,000 Americans have been killed already this year in automobile crashes. We’re all more likely to be harmed or killed in our cars on the way to the store to buy lettuce than by the lettuce itself. We are all more likely to be harmed by the air pollution caused by driving cars to get the lettuce. Driving cars is a tremendous and serious health risk which most of us could do a lot more to avoid. Push alert.