Should I throw out my lettuce?

One of many lettuces more lovely than romaine.  Photo by  Monika Grabkowska , who takes  gorgeous food photos .

One of many lettuces more lovely than romaine.

Photo by Monika Grabkowska, who takes gorgeous food photos.

This week the US has been gripped by an outbreak of vegetable puns. Toss your prepared salad greens in the trash. Heed this wake up kale. Take a #RomaineHoliday. Above all, lettuce romaine calm. An E.coli outbreak is not the endive the world.

E.coli outbreaks are all all pun and games until people experience kidney failure. But maybe these outbreaks are exactly the time we need to maintain a sense of humor, because puns are verbal protection against news stories that have lettuce astray. 

In the past month, we've reacted to stories of E.coli and salmonella outbreaks by cleaning out our vegetable drawers and ordering more pizza. This may be a healthy decision, and certainly a convenient rationalization for the pepperoni lovers among us. But it's also a fear-based reaction to the news, and people making fear-based decisions tend not to think clearly. 

Here's four things to keep in mind as you refill the crisper. 

1. There's a lot of lettuce.

So far, the tainted romaine has been traced to the Yuma, Arizona region, but not to any particular producer. This poses a problem for romaine lovers because most winter romaine is grown there. The CDC is currently advising people to "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." 

All the romaine out of Yuma is off limits until a contamination source is identified. Romaine is the most popular lettuce leaf sold in the US, but it's not the only one. Take this outbreak as an opportunity to try one of the countless varieties of lettuce tastier than romaine. 

2. Most of the romaine is probably fine. 

If you're a romaine farmer, you probably don't love that last suggestion, so you probably want a different reaction to the romaine outbreak.

According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, in 2015 farms produced 8,087 million pounds (that's 8 billion pounds!) of lettuce. Americans didn't consume all of this lettuce: we exported about 5% of all head lettuce and 10% of all leaf lettuce. But according to the AMRC, we consumed 24.5 pounds per person. 

Granted, "consumed" doesn't necessarily mean "ate." It could just as easily mean "purchased with grand healthy eating plans but pushed it to the back of the fridge to make room for leftover takeout curry and identified it weeks later as the cause of that drip on top of the pizza box." So while we can't say that Americans ate 8 billion pounds of lettuce, we can say that Americans have handled a whole lot of lettuce.

Fifty three sick people sounds bad, but that's a tiny proportion of the overall number of American lettuce eaters. If all of the romaine in the Yuma, Arizona growing region was tainted, we'd see a lot more than fifty three cases of E.coli. Most romaine is totally safe. But because no one knows *which* romaine is totally safe, we're being encouraged to avoid all of it.

3. Everybody poops. 

Although the source of this outbreak has not yet been identified, plenty of internet sleuths claim to have solved it already. The source is "surely" unsanitary migrant workers. Or processing plants producing bagged lettuce. Or agricultural run-off from factory farms. 

Any one of these sources could be the cause of the outbreak. Underlying all of these sources of contamination is a simple fact about the ground where our vegetables come from. Animals poop. Sometimes they poop on plants. Sometimes they poop near plants, and that poop seeps into water that then seeps into the plants.

Unless all vegetables are grown hydroponically, there's sometimes going to be poop on vegetables. And even then, there's still going to be poop on vegetables, because humans are animals, too, and we're not all conscientious handwashers. And even the conscientious handwashers among us have to touch door handles and hold hands with children. The point is, a surprising amount of things have a fecal veneer, and because E.coli lives in animal intestines, some of that veneer will have E.coli in it. 

Even if you view this outbreak as an opportunity to change your lettuce preferences, one day your preferred leaf may be the subject of a food recall. Like it or not, poop's part of the human condition. 

4. Outbreaks are more fascinating than frightening. 

Of course, even if there's poop everywhere, it's reasonable enough to want decontaminated food, which is why researchers work so hard to trace outbreaks and eliminate potential sources of contamination.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the impressive sleuthing that led researchers to connect an E.coli outbreak to flour. Someone should purchase the rights to that research, because it would make an excellent television episode. This romaine-based E.coli outbreak is providing similar opportunities for great storytelling. A turning point in the investigation may be a prison in Nome, Alaska, where eight inmates have been sickened. We can imagine the plot will thicken from there. 

News coverage of the flour research delivered the wrong message: "don't eat raw flour." Right now the news is delivering a similar message: "don't eat romaine." I'm not arguing that we all try to play Yuma romaine roulette at dinner tonight, but what if we focused less on the outcome of a particular foodborne outbreak and more on why and how we trace outbreaks of foodborne illness? Why does the U.S. track food outbreaks in the way that we do? How do other countries track foodborne illnesses, if they do at all? On a global scale, what would a "normal" level of food contamination be, and how do we fare on that scale? Do these comparisons help build an argument for less panic about foodborne illnesses, or for more justified concern? 

So what do you do instead of panicking about your produce? Avoid falling for all the hypherbole. Turn down the social media noise and turnip your critical thinking skills. Take a beet before you throw away all your vegetables. Build a salad foundation and you'll stop being terrified by your news feed.