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When will romaine lettuce be safe to serve again?

romaine lettuce bowl

Question:

When will there be an all-clear for romaine lettuce? Our corporate office has told us our salads are safe to eat, but I still have customers asking every day, and my sales are way down on salads. We’re not allowed to post any signs that the lettuce is safe to eat (unless our marketing people send me an approved one), but can answer if asked.

– General manager, c-store, Montgomery County, Pa.

Answer:

For readers who don’t know (and all Restaurant Business readers should), there was an outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Ariz., region, initially reported on April 10. More than 100 people across 25 states have been sickened, with more than half requiring hospitalization. One person has died.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is providing this advice to all restaurants and retailers:

  • “Do not serve or sell any romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Ariz., growing region. This includes whole heads and hearts of romaine, chopped romaine, and salads and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce.”
  • “Restaurants and retailers should ask their suppliers about the source of their romaine lettuce.”

The good news is that the people responsible for your corporate supply chain seem to have observed both those points of guidance, determining that your lettuce is not from the affected region and serving lettuce from elsewhere. The problem is that the consumer advice is more cautious, advising consumers not to buy lettuce if they do not know the origin or cannot identify the type of lettuce in a salad mix. Since you are not indicating where the lettuce is from, consumers are right to be wary.

Lettuce may be in transit, in warehouses and fresh-cut facilities or on shelves for weeks before reaching the consumer. With time and temperature abuse, foodborne pathogens multiply, and cases are still being reported. As such, there really will be no “all-clear” for some time. Though it was reported weeks ago, the outbreak is ongoing.

My advice is to speak with your corporate office about how best to assure guests that your lettuce is safe to eat, including using appropriate signage on menus and at the point of sale. Short of that, it may be time to swap out the romaine for an alternative green. I made a Brussels sprout salad last night that was delicious.

Sadly, this outbreak points to the fragility and complexity of our food system, our ongoing challenges with traceability and recalls, and continued loss of consumer confidence in our ability to feed them safely. More on this outbreak here.

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