- Sales of all lettuce have plummeted following an E. coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona that sickened 172 and caused one death, according to The Wall Street Journal. Romaine sales are down nearly 45% from a year ago, and overall lettuce sales are down 27%, according to Nielsen statistics cited in the article.
- After the outbreak — which has not been traced to any definitive source — began, producers have lost thousands of dollars in crops that were dumped or left to rot.
- Without a producer named responsible, retailers and restaurants are on the hook for costs of pulling products. Additionally, Walmart is being targeted with a possible class action lawsuit filed by outbreak victims, accusing the retailer of exposing consumers to potentially contaminated produce.
Despite being a staple vegetable in many American households, the response to the recent E. coli contamination of romaine lettuce was staggering, and there is uncertainty among growers and retailers as to when sales will get back to pre-outbreak levels.
Leafy greens have been the source of other large outbreaks. In 2006, an E. coli outbreak linked to Dole bagged spinach sickened a total of 204 people, killing three. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis, after this spinach outbreak was over, it took more than six months for spending on the crop to return to previous levels. But that outbreak still cut producers deeply. Even though it's been over for more than a decade, Dan Sutton, general manager at California-based Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, told The Wall Street Journal last month that they grow only half the volume of spinach they did prior to the 2006 E. coli outbreak.
However, there is a chance that leafy greens as an overall category have had their reputation tarnished. It is no secret that leafy greens have been responsible for a large percentage of foodborne illnesses over the years. According to one analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leafy vegetables were responsible for 22% of foodborne illnesses between 1998 and 2008.
In response to the large percentage of foodborne illness cases coming from leafy greens and and the difficulties in pinpointing their cause, the Food Safety Modernization Act includes new standards for produce, including irrigation water quality, worker hygiene and equipment sanitation. Producers have until 2020 to comply with all of the new regulations. Similarly, state-specific industry groups such as the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement have stepped up to the plate in an effort to regulate the industry’s safety internally.
Nine consumer groups are trying to use another provision of FSMA to make leafy greens safer. They have petitioned Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to designate leafy greens "high risk" under FSMA, bringing stricter recordkeeping requirements. These records could make it easier to pinpoint the source of the next outbreak.
Producers are also getting involved. This week, several industry groups formed a Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force to assess the situation. Task force members include the Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements, the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association and Western Growers.
But outbreak or no, the love of lettuce may make it easy for the memory of the contamination to fade from consumers' minds. USDA's Economic Research Service tweeted a graph showing that overall production of romaine lettuce is growing year over year. Coupled with the fact that prices are currently undercutting other leafy greens, producers may yet be able to entice consumers back into the fold.
It will most likely take time. According to a USDA, it took 68 weeks after the 2006 outbreak before spinach sales had surpassed where they were before the shock of the E. coli outbreak. Perhaps the slow climb back to the top of the list of leafy green vegetables will give the industry time to consider the importance of food safety along the fresh produce supply chain and comply with FSMA, while simultaneously devising a way to communicate safety standards to consumers to soothe their frayed nerves.