Local restaurants and lettuce farmers are adapting to life without romaine.

A week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to toss out all romaine lettuce due to an E. coli outbreak that has sickened 43 people in 12 states, restaurants have been scrambling for leafy green substitutes.

When the recall hit just before Thanksgiving, Vanessa Castaneda, general manager of McAlister’s Deli, located at 4551 W. Waco Drive, tossed out 16 pounds of romaine and spring mix lettuce that had romaine in it.

Since then, her wholesale food supplier ran out of other varieties of lettuce as the demand for greens increased, forcing Castaneda to make do with what iceberg lettuce she can find at the grocery store.

“We’re having to run to H-E-B to get some lettuce, I know a lot of us (restaurants) are going there, too,” Castaneda said. “So it’s been pretty difficult.”

Federal health officials late Monday issued a modified warning, as Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that romaine may be eaten if it is known to be produced outside of California or if it comes from hydroponic or greenhouse sources.

Before that clarification, too much supply, not demand, was the issue at Mission Waco’s Urban REAP greenhouse next to its nonprofit Jubilee Food Market at Fifteenth Street and Colcord Avenue.

The greenhouse uses “aquaponic” agriculture methods to grow both vegetables and fish, avoiding the typical sources of E. coli, namely cattle and poultry manure. But in an abundance of caution, Mission Waco suspended its romaine lettuce harvest after the federal advisory, creating a surplus of lettuce waiting in limbo.

“We haven’t sold it, because we didn’t know what to do,” said Mission Waco founder Jimmy Dorrell. “But there’s no way it could be infected. It’s really an awkward kind of deal.”

Little is known about the origin of the contaminated lettuce that caused the most recent health alert, other than it seems to have come from California’s Central Valley. It’s not the first time romaine has caused problems. A similar E. coli outbreak from romaine lettuce in April left 210 people in 36 states sick, including four from Texas, and five people dead.

Not everyone is reeling from the romaine moratorium. One local grower is actually reaping the benefits as area restaurants seek out a safe alternative.

Urban Produce, a wholesale hydroponic greenhouse in South Waco, saw a 50 percent spike in non-romaine lettuce sales in the past week. With a focus on butter, red and green lettuce varieties, Urban Produce sells about 6,000 heads of lettuce a week to supermarkets, restaurants and food wholesalers.

“The demand for our products has skyrocketed because there is now a huge void in the marketplace of romaine lettuce,” Urban Produce General Manager Toby Tull said. “I hate to say that because I know a lot of farmers are suffering because of it.”

The company is able to avoid the risk of fertilizer contamination through a water-based produce farming method.

“A lot of people prefer hydroponic lettuce because it’s grown in a sterile environment so it drastically reduces risk from a grower perspective and a manufacturing perspective. There’s very little chance for contamination,” Tull said. “More and more people are starting to grow more things hydroponically.”

While the FDA and states work to trace the origin of the outbreak, traditional Texas vegetable farmers are taking extra precaution to ensure safe handling of all vegetables.

“Usually they (the FDA) at least know what state, and a lot of times they know what grower or what shipper, was the source,” Hidalgo County AgriLife agent Brad Cowan said. “It’s really concerning to everyone when they issue such a broad recall as this because it’ll affect lots of lettuce that is perfectly safe to consume.”

Lauren Dodd has covered education for the Tribune-Herald since May 2018. A native of Beaumont, Dodd attended Rhodes College and joined the Tribune-Herald in 2018. She previously worked as a reporter at the Seguin Gazette and the Killeen Daily Herald.

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