Thinking of cooking that romaine? Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Lettuce soup recipe on Epicurious.com

Like many of you, when the CDC issued the warning about romaine lettuce last week, I had a package of romaine hearts in my fridge. Even though I had already eaten one, with no ill effects, the CDC is very clear that the rest should be discarded–just in case.

For reasons explained by food safety expert Dr. Robert Brackett in this episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast, washing the lettuce is not enough to remove E. coli..  The only way to kill those bugs is to heat them up to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit and hold them there for a while.

But, like you, I hate to waste food. And I remembered being intrigued last winter by some lettuce soup recipes. Wouldn’t cooking the lettuce thoroughly in a soup be a way to safely avoid throwing this (probably perfectly fine) lettuce away? And a chance to try a new recipe to boot?

When I sat down this morning to write this post, I intended to propose just that: Make soup from whatever romaine lettuce got stranded in your crisper drawer last week.  Fortunately, I decided to run that advice by an expert before publishing it. And I’m glad I did.

Dr. Brackett has once more come to our rescue, explaining why this might not be good advice:

“While it is true that ‘thorough’ cooking should kill E. coli…it depends on the physiological state the bug is in (i.e. phase of growth, individual cells versus “clumps”, etc) as well as where the cells are physically located (internalized in the lettuce, in the middle of a clump of leaves, etc). One would really need to validate the lethality of heating romaine before one could say it was ‘thorough’.

However, another reason why CDC recommends simply discarding all romaine, is that…one could be potentially be bringing E. coli into the kitchen and creating a cross-contamination situation (counters, refrigerator, utensils, etc), or even contaminating one’s hands (and perhaps inadvertently to mouth) and risk illness if they are handling the lettuce. “

If you do have some lettuce on hand, throwing it away really is the better part of wisdom. It’s also not a bad idea to give that crisper drawer a thorough cleaning. (Let’s be honest: this is probably long past due…). Finish up with a proper hand-washing and toss the dishtowel in the laundry. (Most of us don’t do that nearly often enough either.)

Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake that the source is identified quickly. Those sickened by the bug are not the only victims here. Outbreaks like this can have a devastating–and lasting–financial impact on growers and farm workers as well.

In next week’s Nutrition Diva podcast, I’ll be talking about a not-so-new technology that could potentially prevent the next outbreak.

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