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Romaine lettuce illnesses are now in Florida. What does it mean for Tampa Bay?

Romaine lettuce is displayed at a grocery store on May 2, 2018 in San Anselmo, California. One person in California has died from E. coli linked to romaine lettuce. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed a total to 121 cases in 25 states. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Published May 11, 2018

Caesar salad fans, you're not going to like this.

Eating romaine lettuce has been a no-no for about two months, when a string of related food poisonings emerged around the country. Until now, Florida has been mostly unaffected.

But an update Wednesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brings news of a food poisoning outbreak tied to romaine lettuce closer to home: Florida is now among the 29 states that have reported illnesses linked to the lettuce.

The outbreak has been traced to the Yuma, Ariz. growing region, where most of the romaine sold this time of year comes from. Since March, 149 people in 29 states have gotten sick, according to the CDC. (Other states that just joined the list reporting at least one related E. coli illness are Minnesota, North Dakota and Texas.) At least 64 of those people have been hospitalized, with symptoms including vomiting, cramps, bloody diarrhea and a mild fever, and one died in California.

At this point, the CDC is pretty blunt about its recommendations: "Do not eat or buy romaine lettuce unless you can confirm it is not from the Yuma growing region," the most recent warning said.

But that can be tough, or at least pretty confusing, when you go out to dinner and see romaine right there on the menu, as the base for a zippy Southwest salad or shredded atop tacos. Is that lettuce safe to eat?

It depends. Some local restaurants have signs posted that preemptively alert diners to the fact that their lettuce was grown elsewhere and isn't cause for concern.

Andy Jay, the general manager at Red Mesa Cantina in St. Petersburg, said their romaine does not come from the Yuma, Ariz. growing region, but they have not posted anything to that effect, instead answering questions from customers on a case-by-case basis. This is the way at many places, so it's always best to ask, or switch to another green when possible. Also, be careful with lettuce mixes; they could contain a sneak leaf or two of romaine.

Shopping for romaine can be tricky, too, because product labels often don't identify growing regions.

Publix media and community relations manager Brian West said that prior to and during this current outbreak, the grocery store has not sourced its romaine from the region affected. Nature's Food Patch, a local grocery store based in Pinellas County, told us the same thing.

Shannon O'Malley owns Brick Street Farms, an indoor hydroponic farm based in St. Petersburg that specializes in leafy greens and sells to the public on Thursdays and Saturdays. This is the second E. coli/romaine outbreak since Brick Street Farms has been in business, and O'Malley said each time she has seen local restaurants increase their purchases while eliminating lettuce from other places.

Her crops are immune to the bacteria plaguing that lettuce grown in Yuma, she said. Greens are grown indoors under strict sanitary conditions and utilize plant-based fertilizers that don't use any animal products.

"It's poop, is where it's coming from," she said. "E. coli comes from a couple sources usually: field workers working in poor sanitation conditions, or poorly treated manure from cows or sheep."

It's possible this particular outbreak was caused by one of those things; most outbreaks are the result of infected animal feces coming in contact with those who handle the crops. But the CDC has not identified an exact cause.

It's also worth noting that pre-chopped and packaged lettuces are at a higher risk of infection, because they pass through more hands and equipment before reaching your bowl.

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17.

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