Jim Wilson / New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspects that contaminated lettuce is linked to a recent E. coli outbreak.

December 5, 2019

No Threat to Cornell Dining Lettuce Despite Widespread E. Coli Outbreak, Associate Director Says

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More than a year after a sweeping bacterial outbreak led Cornell Dining — along with tens of thousands of other restaurants nationwide — to throw out all of its romaine lettuce, E.coli has returned, once again prompting concerns over how to safely consume lettuce.

So far spanning 19 states, 67 cases of E. coli related to the consumption of romaine lettuce have been reported, hospitalizing at least 39 people, according to the New York Times. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently suspects the outbreak is linked to contaminated lettuce originating from Salinas, California.

But despite the breakout, Cornell Dining, which operates nearly 30 separate eateries, has expressed confidence that its “proactive” approach to food safety and management is more than enough to secure the safety of its patrons.

“We have no reason to believe that any of the produce we received from Maines [a produce supplier] or served in our eateries was actually contaminated,” Paul Muscente, associate director of Cornell Dining told The Sun in an email.

Cornell Dining’s food supplies currently use codes that track products to their production lines and dates, enabling the system to identify salad product units from the at-risk area before having to destroy all products, Muscente said. Other greens were used to replace the romaine lettuce in salad bars, and packaged products were not affected.

“There was no romaine from Salinas in our packaged salads and sandwiches from our external providers including York Street Market,” Muscente continued. “We’ve had no need to cancel any contracts or change any suppliers.”

But while Cornell Dining salads have been deemed safe, people cooking for themselves should still be careful, the CDC has warned.

The strain of E. coli that the CDC has found responsible for this outbreak produces Shiga toxin. Symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, mild fevers and, in dramatic cases, life-threatening kidney failure.

According to Executive Director for Cornell’s Institute for Food Safety, Prof. Elizabeth A. Bihn, food science, contamination can be attributed to a variety of reasons, including wildlife, domesticated animals, and changes to water and soil, spreading pathogens to agriculture.

As the CDC investigates the cause of the outbreak, consumers can work to keep themselves safe. Bihn, for instance, recommends refrigerating and washing produce with cold water as good strategies to reduce the risk of produce contamination, as well as staying up to date with product recalls.

Moreover, if romaine lettuce is labeled as coming from Salinas, California, or consumers do not know where the lettuce came from, the CDC recommends discarding the lettuce, and then cleaning the refrigerator where it was stored.

“Outbreaks are a concern as they cause illnesses and death, but it is important to understand eating produce is very important to good health, maintaining proper body weight, reducing cancer risks, and other important things like nutrients,” Bihn said.

“Avoiding produce is not a good recommendation,” she added.