It was a rainy Friday afternoon in Manhattan’s financial district, as Heather McCurdy, 33, headed into Sweetgreen to get her regular salad, which includes — gasp — romaine. But McCurdy isn’t worried about the recent E. coli outbreak, she tells Refinery29. “I’ve eaten salad since the news came out and I was okay. I thought the stores are probably looking into where they get their products from.” A brave (or at least, surprisingly risk-tolerant) response perhaps, but this seems to be how many salad-eaters we spoke with are reacting to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s warning this week to skip romaine lettuce.
Per the CDC’s report, 98 people in 22 states have been infected with shiga toxin producing E. coli 0157:H7 (a.k.a. the most severe type of the foodborne illness, which can cause hemorrhagic diarrhea and lead to organ failure) after eating contaminated romaine lettuce. A total of 46 have been hospitalized, some with kidney failure.
We visited New York locations of Sweetgreen, Chop’t, and Just Salad. Lunchtime rushes did not seem be affected. With a large line at both the pickup and ordering areas, Sweetgreen’s Wall Street location looked the same as it always does at the 12 p.m. hour every weekday: busy. Despite the crowd and the E. coli news, a fairly constant stream of customers flowed in and out of the store. Included in that stream was Dre McDonald, 22, who gets lunch at Sweetgreen “pretty much every day.” McDonald was well aware of the recent outbreak, but because she always gets her salad made with kale, she wasn’t worried about getting sick.
At Chop’t, the line was shorter, but the service was still consistent. Here, too, customers like Bianca Sosa, 26, explained that because they usually only get kale salads, the outbreak isn’t something they worried about. “I eat a lot of kale and not a lot of romaine. I don’t typically eat romaine just because I don’t really like it that much,” Sosa says, adding that she isn’t concerned about the outbreak contaminating other greens.
Just Salad also had a line. While many of the customers leaving the location said they were a little worried about tainted lettuce, the fear wasn’t strong enough to deter them.
“Oh, [the news of the outbreak] definitely made me worry. I actually asked them about it inside. I was like ‘I assume it’s not a problem anymore?’ and they were like ‘Yeah, no worries,’ Claire (who chose not to disclose her last name), 22 says.
Another customer, Kelsey Payne, 29, says that because she orders kale at Just Salad, she wasn’t anxious about her lunch. “I did buy some bag salad from Whole Foods the other day, and I thought about it, but I didn’t think Whole Foods was going to poison me, so I think it’s fine. I ate it, and I’ve been fine,” Payne says.
Many of the customers who cited their taste for kale over romaine as the reason they were still buying salads stated that they had been paying close attention to the news about the E.coli outbreak to ensure that the bacteria had not be detected in other greens.
All week the CDC has been tweeting to warn consumers not to purchase or eat romaine unless they can confirm it was not from Yuma, Arizona. In one tweet, the CDC wrote, “If you don’t know if it’s romaine or can’t confirm the source, don’t eat it.”
Sweetgreen, Just Salad, and Chop’t all source their romaine from the Salinas Valley in California and not from Yuma — a fact all three chains have confirmed on social media. The customers we spoke to didn’t say that they had seen the social media announcements and comments, however. Most of them simply trusted the chains they regularly get their lunches from.
Though none of the customers we spoke to seemed to care, New Yorkers' favorite salad chains took precautions anyway.
Janani Lee, supply chain manager for Just Salad says the chain added an alternative for customers, just in case. “We actually did start offering iceberg lettuce for customers who just wanted to avoid romaine entirely. We also regularly offer kale, mesclun, baby spinach, and arugula, and we’ve had some customers ask for those instead,” Lee says. But in the end, business wasn’t affected by the outbreak and most customers still ordered romaine.
Sweetgreen declined to respond to our press inquiry. But after we called a store, we got in touch with their guest experiences team via text message to ask about the outbreak. “Our romaine is safe to eat (we’d immediately remove it if it weren’t), but if you’re uncomfortable at all or in any way, our team is happy to substitute any of our other greens instead,” the text read.
Chop’t also declined to comment.
Verdict: Nothing comes between New Yorkers and their Sad Desk Salads.