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Romaine scare hits Houston grocers, restaurants

November 21, 2018

Grocery stores and restaurants across Houston and the country scrambled to pull romaine lettuce off of shelves, salad bars and plates in response to a national E.coli outbreak just two days before Thanksgiving.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday said that all romaine lettuce in the country was unsafe to eat, regardless of where or when it was grown, whether it is pre-cut, part of a mix or whole head or hearts. The CDC advised consumers and retailers to throw away any romaine they have, and to clean refrigerator drawers and shelves where it was stored.

“Consumers who have any type of romaine lettuce in their home should not eat it and should throw it away, even if some of it was eaten and no one has gotten sick,” the CDC said in a food safety alert issued shortly before 2 p.m. Central time.

The size and breadth of the CDC warning is rare, if not unprecedented, food industry analysts said. Lorrie Griffith, the editor-in-chief of The Shelby Report, a grocery industry trade publication in Georgia, said such actions are typically localized, and she could not think of a comparable, nationwide recall, product ban or similar situation.

“This does seem very dramatic,” she said.

At Phoenicia Specialty Foods locations in west and downtown Houston, employees removed 500 pounds of romaine from its deli, grocery stores and catering kitchen, where popular dishes such as Arpi’s Salad that incorporates the leafy green are made. Ann-Marie Tcholakian, whose family has run the Mediterranean deli and grocery for 35 years, said she didn’t want to take any chances with her customers’ health.

“It’s scary because it impacts people’s lives and we take that seriously,” Tcholakian said. “This has really got us on edge.”

The CDC alert came after 32 people in 11 states became sick after eating romaine lettuce contaminated with a Shiga toxin-producing E.coli. Of those, 13 have been hospitalized, including one person who developed a type of kidney failure. The Public Health Agency of Canada also reported 18 people were infected with the same strain of E.coli.

No deaths have been reported in the most recent E.coli outbreak, which started in October.

Earlier this year, five people died and nearly 200 were sickened by a separate E.coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona. That outbreak, which reached 35 states, was the largest in more than a decade.

E.coli, an abbreviation of Escherichia coli, are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of people and animals that if eaten can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses and pneumonia. People usually get sick from E.coli two to eight days after eating contaminated food products, according to the CDC.

The CDC’s warning hit at an especially busy time of year for retailers, restaurants and shoppers gearing up for Thanksgiving. Although the holiday isn’t known for its salads, the CDC alert could have a ripple effect on the food industry, causing consumers to avoid otherwise safe green vegetables.

“It’s always a black eye for the industry when these things happen,” Griffith said. “Even though grocers are not responsible for the growing process and handling, it’s tough on the whole industry. When consumers lose confidence in their food, that’s not a good thing.”

During a recall, grocers usually destroy contaminated produce, or send it back to vendors or to the CDC for testing. Many food retailers pay close attention to CDC alerts because they don’t want to be responsible for people getting ill.

Major grocers, including H-E-B and Kroger, said they removed romaine from their shelves in response to the CDC alert. Kroger, based in Cincinnati, is allowing customers who purchased romaine from its stores to return them for a full refund.

H-E-B and Central Market said it won’t allow romaine products to scan at its check-out counters. The San Antonio-based grocer’s “top priority is food safety and we will restock the product when it is safe for consumption,” a spokeswoman said.

Restaurants around the region were searching for substitutes. Local Foods, which removed romaine from its locations and sanitized all stations and utensils that came in contact with it, replaced the lettuce with locally-grown mixed greens, and placed an order for extra iceberg lettuce.

“We’re informing guests if they’re unaware of the situation so they don’t get romaine somewhere else,” said Philip Ormanovich, manager of the downtown Local Foods.

Salata, a Houston-based chain of make-your-own salad restaurants, said in a statement that it removed all romaine from its locations as a precautionary measure. The company said it had no reported illnesses at its restaurants, and added that supplier reports have come back clean.

“In the meantime, guests can enjoy our other salad bases, including spinach and kale,” a Salata spokeswoman said.

Houston-based Sysco — the nation’s largest food distributor to restaurants, hospitals, schools, hotels and other institutions — declined to comment.

At the Central Market off Westheimer on Tuesday afternoon, the produce aisles bustled with shoppers picking up groceries for the week and ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner. Ashley Gordon said she had bought romaine for a Thanksgiving salad on Monday. Now, the threat of E. coli has forced her to reimagine her holiday meal.

“I will have to use something else,” Gordon said. “I don’t want to run the risk.”

paul.takahashi@chron.com

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rebecca.schuetz@chron.com

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