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What does our reaction to the romaine lettuce E.coli scare say about us?

Romaine lettuce still sits on the shelves in the produce area of an Albertsons market Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, in Simi Valley, Calif. Health officials in the U.S. and Canada told people Tuesday to stop eating romaine lettuce because of a new E. coli outbreak. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Published Nov. 28, 2018

Our national nightmare is over. Lettuce rejoice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has traced the recent E. coli outbreak, which sickened 43 people in 12 states, to romaine lettuce grown in the Central Coastal region of California. Throw out your lettuce from the Salinas Valley, they said. Lettuce from elsewhere is safe to eat, but when in doubt, throw it out. Lettuce grown hydroponically or in greenhouses should be safe no matter where it's from.

So, let's dive into a Caesar salad with extra anchovy, stat. But before we do, a few questions remain. In this record-setting year for foodborne illness, why did the CDC take such a hard stand on romaine last week, urging us to not eat any romaine at all?

And something else interesting happened during this romaine panic: It touched off social media hysteria, memes, online time-wasters and skirmishes. What does the reaction say about us?

It all might have been a function of timing.

"It came right before Thanksgiving, this huge eating holiday," said celebrity chef and food safety expert Mareya Ibrahim. "This was not even a recall. That's when they know where the source is, and the producer issues a recall. This was a consumer advisory but done in such an aggressive way. You can imagine the implication financially. We've never seen anything quite like this one."

Romaine sales, she said, are still down 30 percent from a recall earlier this year. She did some back-of-the-envelope math. The Salinas Valley, where 61 percent of the country's romaine is grown, makes about $600 million annually. Now expand that nationally and it's a crop valued at over $1 billion.

Shawki Ibrahim, an expert in environmental health sciences and Mareya's father, said financial pressures may have contributed to the lifting of the advisory. The CDC and FDA "cost millions of dollars for farmers, retailers and consumers," he said.

Outbreaks are repetitive. Everyone is waiting Groundhog Day-like, for the next one to happen. But romaine is a frequent culprit. Pre-washed salad is touched over and over again during processing, so there's a cost to the convenience of eating straight out of the bag.

After the CDC issued its hard line message, the internet did its thing.

On Facebook, some folks marked themselves safe from romaine lettuce, a la recent natural disasters. Some were gleeful: "Right now chocolate is good for you and romaine can kill you; I've been training all my life for this moment." Even politicians like John Cornyn took to Twitter with produce-pun-studded tweets.

Facebook users employed romaine like a grenade in partisan salvos: "Why is it that when the CDC says to throw out your romaine lettuce everyone takes it as gospel yet when the same agency tells you vaccines save lives they're part of the Illuminati?"

"I saw one that said, 'Banning romaine won't work. People who want romaine will still find a way to get it,' " said Joe Vandello, a social psychologist at University of South Florida. "People used the romaine crisis as a way to play out other political divisions; it was weaponized to talk about immigration or vaccination or gun control."

But why romaine? What is special about this oblong head of crunchy goodness?

Vandello seemed stumped, then said, "Maybe it's the lettuce of the people? Maybe because it's so ubiquitous, and it goes from the garden to our mouth, it makes us more vulnerable and that freaks us out."

During the holiday week, maybe we had too much time on our hands for emotional confrontation on the internet, but it's true: Leafy greens account for a fifth of foodborne illnesses, largely because they are consumed raw. The bagging and prewashing may give people a false sense of comfort.

The FDA aims to create a new labeling standard that would require companies to show where lettuce is grown and harvested. A positive step, but Mareya Ibrahim said food is almost the only thing we wash simply with water and call "clean." We need to pay more attention to how we wash our produce in manufacturing and in our own homes.

Even as the romaine fervor wilts, the crisis was an example of how we're "selectively skeptical and selectively trusting," said Vandello. When the next foodborne illness scare occurs — and there will be a next time — it is clear what we must do on social media and elsewhere. Romaine calm.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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