Alicia Sirkin, a true greens fiend, was suffering from romaine lettuce withdrawal symptoms until she broke down and made herself a small salad for lunch on Wednesday.
“The romaine was from my stash that I bought before the scare,” Sirkin said while shopping in the produce section at Whole Foods Market in South Miami, where romaine lettuce was not on the shelves. “I only ate a little bit. I think I’ll be OK. I hope I’ll be OK.”
Sirkin does not plan to ingest or buy any new heads or hearts of romaine until all warnings of contamination with E. coli bacteria have been lifted. The popular lettuce was recalled from grocery stores last week after the latest outbreak sickened 43 people – 16 were hospitalized – in 12 states.
The romaine shortage has prodded restaurants to improvise on the ingredients of the traditional Caesar salad and consumers to sample leafy cousins such as oft-shunned spinach, insipid iceberg and the self-effacing cabbage.
“We replaced romaine with a mix of arugula and chopped iceberg, and our customers have enjoyed it and appreciated that we wanted to keep them safe,” said Nick Pizzo, shift leader at LoKal in Coconut Grove, which uses romaine in its Shrimp Caesar and West Grove salads.
The Food and Drug Administration traced the source of the pre-Thanksgiving outbreak to the Central Coastal growing regions of northern and central California in the counties of Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Ventura.
Romaine harvested elsewhere – such as in Florida, Mexico, Arizona and in the California desert near Imperial and Riverside counties – and romaine grown at hydroponic farms and in greenhouses has been deemed safe by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But not all romaine products have harvest location labels, leaving consumers to wonder where it’s been grown.
“If the romaine lettuce is not labeled with a harvest growing region, do not buy, serve, sell or eat it,” the CDC said in its latest advisory on Tuesday. “If you do not know where the romaine is from, do not eat it and throw it away.”
Processing companies have reached an agreement with the FDA to identify romaine products – including bags and boxes of precut lettuce and salad mixes – with the harvest origin, “but it may take some time before these labels are available,” the CDC said.
So the absence of romaine at many stores and restaurants may linger through the weekend and shipments could be sporadic. Shortages are likely, and printing new labels and stickers will delay shipping at the outset, said a flyer posted in the produce section at Milam’s Market on Bird Road by supplier Fresh Express.
“Fresh Express realizes this has been a difficult situation for all and our thoughts go out to those affected by this unexplained outbreak,” the notice said. “We also ask for your continued cooperation and patience as we begin the process of restoring the supply chain and restarting shipping operations of romaine products.”
Previous outbreaks have been caused by infected animal feces coming in contact with workers who handle the crops. Chopped and bagged lettuce has a higher risk of contamination because it has passed through more hands and equipment than heads of lettuce.
The romaine recall spurred some shoppers to hoard other types of lettuce. Only one lonely head of cabbage remained on the shelves at the Coral Gables Publix on LeJeune Road on Monday night.
“I love romaine, it’s my first choice for its flavor, but not right now,” Lourdes Damaso said while dejectedly surveying the array of iceberg lettuce at the South Miami Publix on Wednesday.
“These recalls happen too often,” she added, referring to a spring outbreak of a different strain of E. coli infections linked to romaine and traced to Yuma, Ariz., that affected 149 people in 29 states, resulting in one death and the hospitalization of 64 others with vomiting, cramps, bloody diarrhea and fever.
Romaine scarcity presents a glorious opportunity for people to try other types of greens, said Sirkin, 71, who has followed a plant-based, macrobiotic diet since she decided to reverse her unhealthy eating habits 35 years ago when a doctor told her she might have cancer.
While signs at Whole Foods advised shoppers as to why all romaine lettuce had been removed from the produce and buffet areas, Sirkin filled her cart with bok choy, broccolini, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts and daikon radishes.
“Nothing tastes like the crunch of romaine, and I can’t wait for it to come back, but look at all the delicious things we have to choose from,” Sirkin said. “I always include greens with my breakfast to provide energy. It’s important to eat live food instead of dead food.”