Industry leaders say it’s too soon to estimate the economic losses caused by last week’s voluntary romaine lettuce recall, but they hope a new federal labeling regime will quickly restore consumers’ trust in the vegetable.
Stores and restaurants across the country agreed to stop selling romaine just before Thanksgiving after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the lettuce to an E. coli outbreak that sickened 32 people in 11 states.
On Nov. 27, the Food and Drug Administration revised its consumer advisory, announcing it will allow shipping and sales of romaine from growing areas outside of California’s Central Coast region if the lettuce is labeled with location and harvest date.
The recent directive not to eat romaine lettuce highlighted the need for such place-of-origin labeling, argues Creighton Magid, a Washington, D.C.-based product liability attorney for the international law firm Dorsey and Whitney LLP.
“Unlike manufactured products, which can be traced through serial numbers, a consumer generally has no way to know where fresh produce was grown,” Magid says. “That makes tracing the source of an outbreak more difficult, and also prevents limiting recalls of produce to products of a particular farm or region.
“By encouraging place-of-origin labeling for romaine lettuce, the FDA is moving the entire produce industry toward labeling that will make outbreak response more effective and safety warnings to consumers more targeted,” he says.
Central Coast origin
FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb said late last week the tainted lettuce likely originated in California, adding that he was working with industry groups to develop a labeling program. Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales told The Californian in Salinas, Calif., that it’s very likely from his region.
Illnesses related to this outbreak started on dates ranging from Oct. 8 to Oct. 31, according to the CDC. The romaine lettuce available at that time would have been from the Central Coast, which has since completed its harvest.
“Most of the harvesting has moved south to Yuma and the Imperial Valley,” says James Bogart, president of the Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. He says the long-term economic impact to the region from the outbreak remains to be seen.
“I think it’s too early to say,” Bogart tells Western Farm Press, adding that the main focus now is to work with authorities to determine where and how the contamination occurred. “The long-term implications I think are to be determined down the road.
“It’s very, very unfortunate,” he says of the outbreak. “When people get sick, it is very concerning to us. Whether it goes on for a day, a week, a month or longer, it’s a big concern, as it should be to all of us in the industry.”
Bogart says he hopes the FDA’s measures will reassure consumers that fresh romaine lettuce is safe.
“We’ll see,” he says. “That’s up to the consumers and the general public. Will confidence be restored anytime soon? I hope so. But I can’t control that. I guess we’ll just have to see what unfolds.”