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Do not eat Romaine lettuce, US health officials warn

New York

THE warning came just as millions of Americans were preparing for the biggest food holiday of the year - People should not buy or eat romaine lettuce, restaurants should stop serving it, anyone who has it on hand should throw it out and clean their refrigerator immediately.

The stern and sweeping advisory, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday afternoon, two days before Thanksgiving, caught many people off guard. But the agency said it was acting out of an abundance of caution after 32 people in 11 states fell sick with a virulent form of E coli, a bacteria blamed for a number of food-borne outbreaks in recent years.

"If you do not know if the lettuce is romaine or whether a salad mix contains romaine, do not eat it and throw it away," the CDC statement said. "Wash and sanitise drawers or shelves in refrigerators where romaine was stored."

Officials said such extraordinary measures were necessary while they track down the source of the contamination, and at the moment all they could say was that investigators believe the tainted lettuce was grown or processed in Canada or the United States.

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They said a nationwide warning covering an entire type of food was unusual although not unprecedented, noting there was a similar alert regarding tainted spinach in 2006. Peter Cassell, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, said officials were in this case mindful of the approach of the Thanksgiving holiday.

"It's especially important given that these are large gatherings where dishes containing romaine lettuce are frequently served," he said.

This strain is especially dangerous, health officials said, and the toxins it gives off can damage the kidneys. In the current outbreak, half of those infected have been hospitalised, a rate that is much higher than in other E coli outbreaks, said Matthew Wise, the CDC's deputy branch chief for outbreak response.

Steve Feldberg was standing in his kitchen Tuesday in Montclair, New Jersey, preparing dinner and feeling stymied. He pored over the lettuce he bought over the weekend at the local farmers market.

"I think it's romaine," he said hesitantly. "But it's not classic romaine. So we're taking a picture and emailing it to the hydroponic farm to find out, before we eat it." NYTIMES

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