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Lettuce Outbreak

Soon after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called Tuesday for stores, consumers and restaurants to throw away their supply of romaine lettuce, several Madison restaurants reshuffled their menus.

Forget that Caesar salad for a light meal before the big Thanksgiving pig-out.

Soon after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called Tuesday for stores, consumers and restaurants to throw away their supply of romaine lettuce, several Madison restaurants reshuffled their menus.

“All of our locations pulled the romaine used on their menus by the early afternoon yesterday, shortly after the warning came out from the CDC,” said Alex Felland, operations manager for Food Fight Restaurant Group, in an email. The company operates 20 restaurants in Madison and surrounding communities.

He said within an hour of the proclamation, “all locations were confirmed to have removed the romaine from their kitchens.”

The CDC notice was more extensive and direct than one issued earlier this year after an E. coli outbreak that sickened about 200 people was blamed for five deaths. That outbreak was attributed to E. coli from romaine grown in Yuma, Arizona. Officials said tainted irrigation water was the likely cause.

The latest outbreak is a different type of virulent E. coli strain, and officials have yet to pin down a source.

“Do not eat any romaine lettuce, including whole heads and hearts, chopped, organic and salad mixes with romaine until we learn more,” the agency said in a tweet Tuesday. “If you don’t know if it’s romaine or can’t confirm the source, don’t eat it.”

The situation has not come without hardship.

Jenifer Street Market owner Steve McKenzie said that because of the time of year and other market forces, romaine has been “in really short supply,” so it was a lot of money down the drain.  

“The market price is a lot stronger than it normally is,” he said. “So it’s frustrating.”

He said he’s also disappointed by the lack of information from health officials as news trickles out that the likely source of the tainted lettuce is in California. McKenzie got his lettuce from Florida. 

“I have a funny feeling that my product does not have a problem at all," he said. "But we’ve obviously had to go to the safest common denominator and pull it all.”

Health officials reported that 32 people in 11 states, including Wisconsin, were infected between Oct. 8 and Oct. 31, as well as 18 people in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Other states include Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and California, where most of the romaine grown this time of year originates.

Doug Voegeli, director of environmental health for Madison and Dane County Public Health, said the effort to get romaine off of grocery shelves and out of restaurant kitchens involves multiple channels.

The health department, he said, issued a newsletter that goes to restaurants and retailers, and inspectors will follow up with inspections. In addition, distributors like Sysco, one of the leading suppliers for area restaurants and cafeterias, will work with clients to ensure that lettuce is thrown out.

“You have the public media, you have us and you have the distributors that are ensuring that people are throwing it out,” he said.

Local restaurants have been quick to find alternatives.

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“We have other greens that we are using for our base,” said Raenah May, a manager at Forage Kitchen, a State Street restaurant that specializes in salads and cold-press juices.

The restaurant is giving customers a choice between spinach, mixed greens and kale, she said.

“People have been pretty understanding,” she said. “They don’t want to get sick."

For the owners of Glass Nickel on Madison’s west side, it wasn’t an issue. The restaurant stopped using romaine after the last outbreak.

“We switched to green leaf since the last recall,” said co-owner Noel Johnson.

She said Glass Nickel brought it back briefly, but “it was not in good shape.”

The CDC call to toss all romaine lettuce falls short of a recall, a move that U.S. Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said there was insufficient information to make, according to the Associated Press. Health officials are still trying to determine the source, and Gottlieb said that contaminated lettuce is likely still on the market.

Voegeli said the wording of the CDC advisory likely doesn’t give the department the authority to order the removal of romaine lettuce from menus and store shelves, but “we do have pretty good relationships.”

“If we ask restaurants or grocery stores to do something, they usually are pretty good about following through,” he said. “The restaurants and the grocery stores don’t want anybody to get sick.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.