Here’s why this Massachusetts produce stand is still selling romaine despite the CDC warning
Americans were warned Tuesday to stop eating romaine lettuce. But the alarm did not faze one local produce stand.
The Stillman’s Farm produce stand at the Boston Public Market was still selling romaine lettuce Wednesday, even as other shops and restaurants — both local and national chains — pulled their romaine or replaced it with other types of leafy greens.
The aversion to romaine Wednesday came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning Tuesday urging people to stop eating romaine in all its forms after an E. coli outbreak sickened 32 people across 11 states — including in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. The CDC also said retailers should pull romaine from their shelves and restaurants should refrain from serving it until further notice as investigators work to determine the source of the outbreak.
At least one local expert was also urging consumers to take the warning seriously, saying it simply wasn’t worth throwing caution to the wind.
“Quite honestly, do you really want to risk it when there are other kinds of lettuce?” said Dr. Darin Detwiler, a food policy professor at Northeastern University.
However, the Stillman’s Farm salad bar was still offering up a bin of romaine, despite the CDC warnings.
“Our romaine is locally sourced and organic,” said Kate Jenkins-Sullivan, manager of the farm’s Boston Public Market stall. “We know where it’s coming from.”
Stillman’s Farm, a family-owned venture located in the central Massachusetts town of New Braintree, boasts on its website about using a “conscientious” and “holistic” approach to its farming, defining itself as “a leader in growing top-quality, safe, and healthy produce and plants.”
As of 1 p.m., Jenkins-Sullivan said several people had already bought salads containing romaine from the stall — and noted she had eaten some that morning as well. (And look, she added — she was still there, upright and healthy.)
“No one’s concerned,” she said. “We get it from a small, controlled environment, as opposed to a large, industrial environment.” (Even though temperatures were dropping throughout Massachusetts, Jenkins-Sullivan said the farm uses covers and a greenhouse to continue growing in the colder months.)
Lainey Chippero, a sales associate at the stand, seemed amused at the fact that a reporter had been worried enough to ask about the safety of their lettuce, saying she felt “super confident” about serving it.
“We know who’s growing it, we know it’s safe,” she said, adding that the farmer had just dropped off produce to the stall himself Wednesday afternoon. “I mean, we get like, 10 heads of lettuce at a time.”
However, the same couldn’t be said for all shops in the public market. A few stalls down, a sign taped to a cash register for Inna’s Kitchen said iceberg had temporarily been swapped in for romaine — although the workers there seemed fairly apathetic to the issue.
“It didn’t really affect us,” said Kiki Jones, a food server at the Inna’s stand. “We only had one person who asked about it.”
Meanwhile, more than 6,000 restaurants and grocery stores in Massachusetts were advised to stop serving or stocking romaine lettuce until further notice, trade groups said.
Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the word went out to approximately 5,500 member establishments before the dinner rush Tuesday.
“Romaine’s not just used in Caesar salads,” he said. “It’s used in mixed green salads, potentially on burgers. It’s used in a number of different entrees and salads.” And in the short term, at least, those menu offerings may look “slightly different” when they arrive at your table, Luz said.
The Massachusetts Food Association, which represents hundreds of grocers statewide, also informed its members of the federal advisory in an e-mail message Tuesday.
“Being Thanksgiving week, a lot of people are [normally] consuming this product,” said Brian Houghton, senior vice president of government affairs and communications for the group, as he spoke about the financial effect on member stores. “It’s more significant than it would be in a normal week.”
Larger chains were also heeding the CDC’s warning. Sweetgreen, the popular national salad company that has several locations in Boston, tweeted a statement Tuesday night saying that the chain was pulling all romaine from its stores until further notice.
“Per the CDC’s recent announcement, we’re proactively pulling all romaine and spring mix from sweetgreen restaurants nationwide until the CDC provides information about the specific growing regions affected,” the chain said in the tweet.
Per the CDC's recent announcement, we're proactively pulling all romaine and spring mix from sweetgreen restaurants nationwide until the CDC provides information about the specific growing regions affected. DM/Email us with any questions.— sweetgreen (@sweetgreen) November 21, 2018
Detwiler, the Northeastern food policy professor — who said his own son died after falling ill with E. coli — noted that buying from a small, local farm might be a better choice for those who are set on consuming romaine, but he still warned that it might not be 100 percent safe.
“It’s possible it might be a better choice because it’s not part of a national distributor, but we have an active outbreak going on,” he said. “We don’t know the source, but we know it’s tied to romaine lettuce.”
He also said the government warning appeared dire enough that it shouldn’t be ignored.
“How many times does the CDC come out and say, ‘Don’t eat this’?” he said. “If the CDC is going out of their way to tell you not to eat this, then you don’t eat this.”
Officials from the CDC said Wednesday that the Food and Drug Administration is still working to determine where the tainted romaine came from.
However, in the meantime, even small farms aren’t necessarily safe to sell the lettuce, said CDC spokesman Bert Kelly.
“At this time, our guidance is universal,” Kelly said, adding that the warning extends even to “mom and pop” operations. “We suggest that no one eat it, and no buy it, and no one sell it until we determine the source.”
The CDC had no additional updates on the outbreak as of early Wednesday evening.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.