The recent E. coli outbreaks have caused consternation in the produce industry, with Canada naming romaine as the source and U.S. health officials pointing consumers toward the same conclusion with an announcement that presented more questions than answers.
Several grower-shippers declined to discuss whether the U.S. outbreak had affected their businesses, but a United Fresh Produce Association member alert Jan. 10 acknowledged it has “impacted many members.”
Numerous restaurants stopped using romaine after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared an outbreak and stated that illnesses might be related to a Canadian outbreak linked to romaine.
Foodservice company Compass Group, quick-service restaurant chain Wendy’s and University of Michigan dining services were among numerous companies that stopped carrying romaine because the CDC suggested it could be the cause of illnesses.
Consumer Reports warned people not to eat romaine, and that caution was widely reported by mainstream media outlets.
Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole, said the company had some inquiries from customers but more from consumers.
“There has been a great deal of misinformation and confusion in the marketplace,” Goldfield said.
Dole and other companies directed questions about romaine to a joint industry statement issued Jan. 4 by United Fresh, the Produce Marketing Association, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and other industry groups.
The statement highlighted several facts: U.S. officials had not named a source; no grower, shipper or processor had been asked to stop shipping or recall product; and if a leafy green was responsible, the contaminated product was no longer in the supply chain.
On Jan. 10, the CDC named leafy greens the likely source of the outbreak but acknowledged that consumers need not avoid any food given the time that had passed since the last illness was reported Dec. 12.
However, while Canada has declared its outbreak over, the U.S. has not.
Markon Cooperative president Tim York, who spoke with The Packer before the CDC’s Jan. 10 update, said the company had not seen significant erosion of romaine sales compared to the same period in 2017, although it did see some chain restaurants and individual operators elect to remove romaine from their menus until the CDC declared it safe.
York, who is also the chairman of the Center for Produce Safety, said Markon stressed the facts of the outbreak in conversations with customers. Given that any suspect product was almost certainly gone from the supply chain, Markon recommended customers not curtail romaine purchases, but each organization makes its own decision, York said.
As of Jan. 11, Consumer Reports continued to advise people not to eat romaine until there is more information on the source of the outbreak.