Alternatives sought in wake of romaine lettuce recall

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


More than one week after the Centers for Disease Control warned consumers nationwide about an E. coli outbreak in heads of romaine lettuce, county restaurants, Greater Jasper Schools and a Jasper grocery store remain uncertain when they’ll be reintroducing the leafy green staple to their menus and stock.

The CDC announced Monday night that the outbreak had been traced to the central coastal region of California, but representatives from local kitchens and Jasper’s Hometown IGA said Tuesday they don’t have a timetable for when it will be available at their establishments.

In the meantime, they’re making due with safer substitutes and other options.

Midwest Cafe & Market in Jasper, for example, has shifted to serving only spinach with its salads. Midwest Chef Kurt Cassidy-Gabhart explained that the cafe normally offers both spinach and romaine lettuce options, but that changed when news of the outbreak broke last week, and romaine lettuce was pulled from the menu.

The vast majority of salads sold at the cafe are usually made with romaine lettuce, but Cassidy-Gabhart said his customers have made a smooth transition to the all-spinach salad menu. He credited this to the fact that the majority of the cafe’s patrons are health-conscious.

“People don’t seem to mind, because spinach has more nutrients than romaine in the first place,” he said. “It’s just a healthier alternative overall.”

Cassidy-Gabhart heard from the cafe’s produce supplier, US Foods, that the inventory for substitutes like green leaf, harvest blend and iceberg lettuce is rapidly depleting.

“They said that because the farmers did not anticipate, of course, an E. coli outbreak, they did not prepare their inventory, their harvest for this kind of demand,” he said. “And so everything’s pretty much out, except for spinach, fortunately.”

He said the amount of romaine lettuce that has been pitched due to the outbreak is tragic. Fortunately for Midwest, the cafe was all out of the lettuce at the time of the CDC’s announcement.

Market Street Soup -n- Salad in Huntingburg wasn’t so lucky. Co-owner Greg Kane said about 20 pounds of romaine lettuce that would normally be used in the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat soup and salad buffet were yanked and thrown out.

Now, the establishment has shifted to offering iceberg and green leaf lettuce, as well as spinach — options that were available from supplier US Foods that are safe.

Kane explained that another romaine lettuce recall was issued earlier this year, and Soup -n- Salad kept it off the bar for about three weeks just to be sure it was safe. He plans on doing the same this time around.

“Just because we have a lot of options on lettuce,” he said. “There’s no reason to put it out until we’re sure that it’s safe as can be.”

Romaine lettuce has also been pulled from salad bars at Jasper High School and Jasper Middle School, as well as from lunch lines at all corporation schools.

Corporation Food Service Director Katie Knies explained the middle school salad bar has been shut down until further notice, and the high school bar has switched to offering iceberg lettuce and other leafy greens. Most of the corporation’s schools are also offering broccoli as a dark green vegetable in place of romaine lettuce.

“At this point, we are waiting to get confirmation that it is safe to consume again,” Knies said of romaine lettuce. “The middle school is trying to get iceberg so that they can follow the high school’s lead and continue with a salad bar and offer some other dark green vegetables. But with the recall of romaine, our distributor was very limited on other lettuces or leafy greens.”

She continued: “I think they had a lot of demand from their other customers as well. So, right now, it’s kind of hard for us to get a hold of.”

At Jasper’s Hometown IGA, employees have pulled all romaine lettuce as well as bagged salads and deli salads that had romaine lettuce in them off store shelves and from the salad bar.

“It was big,” store manager Matt Ledgerwood said of the hit the store took from the outbreak. “I don’t know a dollar amount, but it left a lot of the case wanting for product.”

At this point, the stock has been replaced with salads and items featuring iceberg lettuce or other ingredients. Tuesday afternoon, the store had not received word on when romaine lettuce would be available for purchase. Customers can return items purchased with romaine lettuce for a refund.

According to the latest warning from the CDC, romaine lettuce products will be labeled with a harvest location by region, but it may take some time before these labels are available. The organization stressed that if the romaine lettuce is not labeled with a harvest growing region, consumers should not buy, serve, sell or eat it.

That advice goes for all types or uses of romaine lettuce, such as whole heads of romaine, hearts of romaine, and bags and boxes of precut lettuce and salad mixes that contain romaine, including baby romaine, spring mix and Caesar salad.

More on