Following the recall and advisory warning that was issued late last week over romaine lettuce grown in the Salinas, Ca. region, at least one food distributor is hoping for some long-term change while dealing with the short-term effects of the warning.
The advisory, issued Nov. 22 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., was released following the reporting of 40 cases of E. coli O157:H7 infections in 16 states.
Liability is one major issue of contention for Brent Erenwert whose company, Brothers Produce Houston/Houston Cold Storage based in Houston, Tex., has customers in restaurants, schools and some retail. “I have products in this growing area because my customers are mandating who I buy from,” he says. “But what happens is I’m now stuck holding the bag when there’s an advisory and not a recall because the customers aren’t going to see the product.”
While he notes that yet another advisory on romaine lettuce is another mark against the produce industry, he’s thankful it’s not like the late 2018 North American-wide recall of romaine, which saw grocery store shelves cleared completely of the leafy green. “This time at least they did an advisory over a growing area but it’s in all sorts of salad mixes, romaine hearts and other different value-added items,” says Erenwert.
Driving up markets
He’s also predicting that soon, if not already, the industry will see escalated markets on romaine. “We’re in a transition time and you still have some product that’s transitioning regions, you’ve now lost all that product in the north. It’s going to put a heavy supply demand on the south,” says Erenwert. “I expect elevated prices for several weeks because farmers need to recoup this money. They’ll have to keep their prices up. If it’s anything like the last go-around, I expect to see this thing stay high for the next 60-90 days. We’ve got to catch up on those volumes.”
Additionally, other leafy greens are also likely to go up in price and demand as well. “In the end, users are going to be afraid of romaine in general,” says Erenwert. “And the first product they’ll lean on is green leaf and iceberg lettuces. And if they move away from mixes, you’ll see baby spinaches have more demand and those markets will go up as well.”
Looking ahead though, Erenwert remains concerned over the bigger issue: how can these advisories be prevented or stopped from happening? “What is the number that triggers an advisory to a recall? I’ve never heard an answer to that question,” says Erenwert. “One person dying is one too many. We all talk amongst ourselves about it but that’s it. It’s frustrating and it shouldn’t keep happening.”
He also wonders what may happen to romaine as a commodity in general in the future. “I’ve heard so many farmers talk about this that there are so many recalls tied to romaine over the past four to five years that we may start seeing romaine make a retreat,” adds Erenwert.
Update: As of November 25th, a total of 67 people are confirmed to have been infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7, found in romaine lettuce. This number is up by 27 people since a previous update from November 22nd. The infected people are spread across at least 19 states.