Last month, the CDC advised all US consumers, growers, shippers and foodservice establishments to throw away all romaine lettuce and anything that contained romaine due to an outbreak of E-Coli in several states. Some have been questioning the extreme reaction and wondering if the situation could have been handled better.
Questions not answered
Brent Erenwert of Brothers Produce, reckons that information from the CDC has been vague in regards to the source of the outbreak as well as potential effects. He questioned in a recent podcast why the decision was made to throw all romaine lettuce away, despite apparently very little investigation.
"On November 18, the CDC issued a statement warning all consumers to throw any romaine lettuce away they had in their possession due to an E-Coli outbreak," Erenwert said. "This included pre-cut romaine, salads, foodservice, even spring mix. The question is why all romaine lettuce? There was no information or explanation as to what the source region or how widespread the outbreak was or indeed even if romaine was the cause. We didn't see any consistency in regions and we can't understand why it was called an outbreak."
"Many of the symptoms of E-Coli infection that the CDC described are very similar to regular food poisoning so how do we know whether a person reported these symptoms after eating romaine or whether it was another food? Food poisoning from restaurants and fast food chains happens every day, but there is never a directive to completely avoid a large restaurant chain because of it. Additionally, the rumored area where the infected romaine originated is Santa Maria and it will remain a rumor so long as the CDC does not announce what exactly their findings were."
Tough for all
As a result of the directive, countless tons of romaine lettuce have been cast into the bin all across the country. Who does this affect? According to Erenwert, everyone - from growers, shippers, retailers as well as end consumers. He said it started with the so-called 'middle men' - the shippers.
"It's a false notion that in these situations, the middle men are unaffected," he explained. "In fact, it is these middle men that take the initial hit. They can't return product to the growers because it is not an official recall, and because consumers are not buying it, retailers stop buying it too. In both cases, they are left holding the bag."
He added that farmers face a tough time, partly due to the fact it wasn't an official recall. "Farmers did initially get paid for the produce, but now they have product in the field that they can't sell so they have to clean it up. It's doubtful that insurance will cover it in this instance because of the careful wording used by the CDC and USDA surrounding the directive and the fact it wasn't a recall situation."
"Foodservice buyers need to substitute all their romaine and they usually do so with other leafy greens," Erenwert continued. "These leafy greens like iceberg lettuce, kale, spinach, etc, are now at extremely elevated prices and it's not like restaurants and other foodservice producers can increase menu prices overnight."
Many tons of romaine lettuce have been thrown away in the past month
Erenwert also expressed his sadness at the amount of food that has been thrown away because he believes the majority of romaine that was discarded was clear of any bacteria. "The amount of product that was thrown away was phenomenal," he observed. "It was heartbreaking to see all that edible product - which I knew to be completely safe - go to waste. Several times a year, I join in food drives for homeless people and I think the CDC and USDA need to provide us with an answer and a better solution to what happened."
Consumers to face higher prices over next 12 months
With farmers having to replace their crops, shippers having to dispose of all the product, and buyers discarding what they have bought, prices are expected to be higher over the next 12 months. Erenwert said it's not just going to affect romaine prices, but all leafy green items. The higher prices for these are realized already, but it's the supply issue moving forward that is most likely to be acute.
"Customers will ultimately take the biggest hit because prices will be elevated for the next year to recoup the losses. We are already running thin on other leafy greens because of the high demand. It means that we are going to gap very hard, at which point buyers will switch back to romaine. As a result, we expect romaine to be 25 percent higher on FOB prices."
Banding together as an industry
The decision to dispose of all romaine lettuce in the United States clearly has an effect on the entire supply chain. Even greenhouse- and hydroponically-grown romaine, was not immune, despite them being considered safe. "Many people are asking if hydroponic is the way forward," Erenwert said. "In this case, it didn't really matter as the directive was for all romaine to be thrown out, regardless of where it came from. Here we didn't see any names, regions, or anything else to indicate where the source of the outbreak was."
He concluded by saying that the industry needs to act as one team because according to him, it seems that fresh produce is an easy target for authorities to blame disease outbreaks on. "It is easy to blame lettuce because it is almost always eaten raw, it does occasionally carry soil material all the way to the end consumer. Therefore, whenever there is a disease outbreak, it seems fresh produce is always made to be the scapegoat. That is why we as an industry need to band together. The organizations that oversee our industry, such as United Fresh, PMA, and other associations, need to demand answers from the CDC. Otherwise there is no point in paying memberships for governmental representation when the end result is always the same and we are again left without answers."