When Scott Gottlieb from the FDA asked retailers, restaurants and other commercial outlets to voluntarily pull from the market and destroy any romaine lettuce just two days before Thanksgiving, it was a poignant request.
"The quick and aggressive steps we’re taking today are aimed at making sure we get ahead of this emerging outbreak, to reduce risk to consumers, and to help people protect themselves and their families from this foodborne illness outbreak," Gottlieb said in a statement on Nov. 20. "This isn’t the first romaine outbreak we have seen in the recent past, and we will continue to take steps to identify the root causes of these events and take action to prevent future outbreaks."
The leafy green industry has struggled during the past year, with three outbreaks tied to E. coli. The cause of the current romaine outbreak in California, responsible for sickening 52 people across 15 states, hasn't been identified.
In recent weeks, the FDA has participated in discussions with major producers and distributors of romaine lettuce, as well as trade groups representing the produce industry in an attempt to reduce the impact of future outbreaks.
Gottlieb said last month that major growers agreed to voluntarily label romaine with the growing region and the date of harvest to help with market recalls and traceability. The new labeling could be expanded to other leafy greens and produce going forward, he added.
United Fresh, whose members represent the entire produce industry supply chain, said in a statement the deal was negotiated by "a number of romaine grower-shipper-processors" who agreed to take part. Fresh Express, Taylor Farms, Dole Fresh Vegetables and Earthbound Farm are among the companies who said they would adopt the new labels.
Romaine consumption gets clobbered
Consumption of fresh lettuce, as part of a broader consumer push to eat healthier and better-for-you foods, has been gradually trending upward. It averaged around 11.5 pounds to 12 pounds per person annually since about 2006, before spiking to 12.7 pounds and 12.5 pounds in 2016 and 2017, respectively, according to Statista.
But the outbreaks have clobbered romaine lettuce sales, according to Nielsen data. Sales of the vegetable, typically the most widely consumed salad green, slumped 13% during the year ending Nov. 24 to $631 million, reported fooddive.com.