The Decade Lettuce Tried To Kill Us
Our love affair with salad in the 2010s got a lot of people sick. Maybe it’s time to end our relationship with lettuce as we know it.
Americans — hyper-health-conscious and profoundly gluttonous — spent the decade bingeing on salad. We ate the iceberg, the red leaf, the green leaf! We devoured the romaine! We stuffed ourselves with baby spinach! We gorged on arugula! We even ate an unfathomable amount of kale — and if that doesn’t prove our devotion to leafy greens, I don’t know what will.
Our culture, if not just our bellies, was stuffed full of lettuce in the 2010s, starting with the meme Women Laughing Alone With Salad in the Hairpin. Chopped (not mixed) salad was declared the lunchtime craze by the New York Times in 2013, but by 2019, the un-chopped salad startup chain Sweetgreen was the new Power Lunch, according to Eater. In 2017, an image from a gay porn scene of a woman exasperatingly asking two men not to have sex “right in front of my salad?” became a huge meme. The decadelong obsession with the latest in salad trends came full circle when the Atlantic declared that once-hot kale was “over.” We thought about leafy greens nearly as much as we ate them.
But as our vegtastic bacchanalia went on, dark forces were at work — to be specific, harmful bacteria. And they revealed the very real problems of our agricultural–industrial complex. Big Lettuce will not be mocked.
There were dozens of outbreaks of E. coli linked to leafy greens in the United States between 2009 and 2017, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hundreds of people fell sick — E. coli causes severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting.
As if the decade weren’t bad enough, eating raw veggies was a gamble. Was that Caesar salad worth it?
Then in late 2017, salad actually became deadly. One person in California died in an outbreak of E. coli that sickened 25 people in 15 states. “Information gathered from ill people indicated that the likely source of the outbreak in the United States was leafy greens,” according to the CDC.
Just months later, in spring 2018, the situation got even worse. Another five people — two in Minnesota and the rest from Arkansas, California, and New York — died from eating romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli. In total, 210 were sickened in 36 states in this outbreak, and 96 were hospitalized (some developed kidney failure). It was the largest since 2006, when three people died in an outbreak of E. coli linked to fresh spinach.
How did eating salad get so dangerous?
Investigators of the deadly 2018 outbreak pointed to one possible source: an irrigation canal that ran along a large animal feeding operation that delivered water to farms in California and Arizona where the lettuce was grown. In other words, cattle feces were likely mixing into the canal water used on the farms. “Other possible explanations for how the irrigation canal became contaminated are possible,” according to the FDA report, but the team “found no evidence in support of alternative explanations.”
The lettuce outbreaks didn’t end there, although thankfully there weren’t any additional deaths. In late 2018, 62 more people fell ill with E. coli, which was linked to romaine lettuce from the coast of central California. The strain of E. coli was found “in sediment within an agricultural water reservoir” on a farm in Santa Barbara County.
Then in fall 2019, at least 138 people in 25 states fell ill after eating romaine lettuce from the growing region in Salinas, California. The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service warned against “consuming any wraps, sandwiches, prepackaged salad, salad kits, or other product containing romaine lettuce” harvested from the region. As of publication, the investigation was ongoing.
This tally doesn’t even include all the times people have gotten sick — with bugs besides E. coli and salmonella— from eating prepared veggie plates and prepackaged salads (including a massive outbreak of cyclosporiasis last year linked to McDonald’s salads that sickened more than 500).
Here’s a timeline of the largest multistate lettuce-related outbreaks that happened on romaine, iceberg, arugula, spring mix, leafy greens, and prepackaged salads, according to the CDC:
2010s total: More than 1,010 people sickened, including 6 deaths.
At the end of the 2010s, we found ourselves in the absurd situation of trying so hard to be healthy that we’re gorging on lettuce and other greens that might have been grown using water contaminated with animal feces from giant livestock feedlots — because we also love to eat unthinkable amounts of meat.
And at least some percentage of this is totally avoidable if you actually just cook the damn veggies, which kills off bacteria and other pathogens. You can grill it, stir-fry it, or put it in soup, for example (I recommend stir-fried — here’s a recipe). But raw food has been all the rage, and salad by nature isn’t cooked, so the only way to avoid getting sick from lettuce may be to break up with salad in the 2020s.