NEW YORK (Reuters) - Romaine lettuce still had a place at the salad bars of some cafes and delicatessens in New York City on Wednesday despite a rare, nationwide U.S. public health warning for consumers to avoid eating any of it because of possible E.coli contamination.
The blanket warning, precipitated by an E.coli outbreak in 11 states and Canada that has made at least 50 people ill, was issued on Tuesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC and industry officials said evidence pointed to the central coast of California as the probable source of the outbreak.
Large chain grocers such as Whole Foods Market, owned by Amazon.com Inc, and nationwide salad retailers such as Chopt and Fresh & Co told Reuters they stopped selling romaine as soon as the warning was issued.
But some individually owned shops said romaine was still being sold because officials had not specified the source of potentially contaminated lettuce, such as a farm or company.
“It’s up to the customers to choose to eat it or not,” said Alex Hwang, manager of Dali Market in midtown Manhattan. “Whatever we have, it’s the same thing we had yesterday. They ate it, and we had no issues with it.”
The CDC said at least 32 people in 11 states, including two in New York, had fallen ill from E.coli bacteria between Oct. 8 and 31. The Public Health Agency of Canada said it was investigating 18 cases of E.coli.
A total of 13 cases in the two countries resulted in hospitalizations. No deaths have been reported.
Both the U.S. and Canadian alerts, coming as millions of Americans planned their Thanksgiving Day menus, urged consumers, restaurants and retailers to throw out all romaine left in stock and sanitize their shelves.
Given the early October onset of the first illnesses reported, the tainted romaine in all likelihood originated from California, which ranks as the leading producer of American lettuce, FDA spokesman Peter Cassell told Reuters on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Reuters visited nine independently owned delis and cafes in midtown Manhattan, where salad bar lines at lunchtime are typically long. All but one were selling romaine lettuce, some of which had been delivered on Wednesday.
“No one came by and told us. We didn’t know,” Irivia Spivey, a salad tosser at Mamaroo, a Korean cafe, said as her manager stood by.
A sample by Reuters of 12 grocers and supermarkets in Chicago, Detroit and Denver found that romaine had been removed from their shelves.
“As soon as I heard on the news yesterday, I threw everything in the trash that had romaine lettuce - salads, romaine itself,” said Mike Fisayo, manager of Chicago’s South Loop Market.
Cory Lunde, a spokesman for the Western Growers farm trade group, said the early onset date and industry shipment schedules pointed to romaine harvested in September from the central California coast, probably from the areas around Salinas or Santa Maria, as the most likely source.
Based on what is known, the tainted lettuce had almost certainly expired and disappeared from the distribution chain even before the voluntary withdrawals went into effect on Tuesday, Lunde said.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the blanket scope of the lettuce alert was “unusual but certainly not unprecedented,” citing a 2006 warning about tainted spinach as the last time a cross-country advisory was issued for an entire type of food.
“We did that out of an abundance of caution, knowing that we’re going into a holiday weekend that is very centered on food,” Cassell said.
Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Peter Szekely in New York, Nick Carey in Detroit, Renita Young in Chicago and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney