Romaine is slowly making its way back to store shelves following the Food and Drug Administration’s six-day “purge” of all products containing the leafy green.
Several stakeholders in the supply chain said supplies of romaine at stores won’t return to full strength until the first few days of December.
From the Nov. 20 alert by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA that all romaine products be removed from the stream of commerce, to the Nov. 26 notice allowing it back, industry groups were working with regulators to bring the situation to a close.
The FDA on Nov. 26 reported that investigators had narrowed the origin of the E. coli that sickened 43 people in the U.S. (Canadian health authorities reported 22 related cases there) to California’s Northern and Central Coast.
“Everyone’s taken a pretty big hit, from farmers, shippers, to customers and stores,” Steve Koster, in marketing for E. Armata Fruit and Produce Inc. at Hunts Point Produce Market, Bronx, N.Y., on Nov. 28. “A lot of it is being sent back here, which isn’t good.”
As with another E. coli outbreak linked to romaine almost a year ago and one this year attributed to “leafy greens,” the category is not going to see demand rise quickly.
“Nobody’s going to be really quick to get back into it, because everyone’s still thinking that romaine’s no good, and they’re not going to take a chance on it,” Koster said. “It won’t bounce back in a week.”
Dole Fresh Vegetables resumed packing value-added salads, blends and kits on Nov. 29 in Soledad, Calif., and at Bessemer City, N.C., and Springfield, Ohio, processing facilities on Nov. 30, said Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole. Packing of whole heads resumed Nov. 27.
Goldfield said West Coast markets should see the first products hitting store shelves by December 2, quickly followed by the East Coast. Whole heads and processed romaine blends, kits and other products should arrive at the same time.
“We are selling both open-market and contractual romaine,” he said. “The market seems to be stabilizing close to where it was prior to the (Nov. 20) FDA announcement to stop consuming, however, we won’t know the consumer’s reaction and purchase intent is until product is back on shelf.”
Earthbound Farm began packing on Nov. 27, Alan Ediger, Earthbound Farm chief commercial officer, said. Stores closer to the Yuma, Ariz., and California Imperial Valley growing regions will have product faster as supplies make their way East.
“It depends on customer orders,” Ediger said. “Very soon for some, and yes, geography does play a role, just given transportation time.”
He expects both bagged/value-added products and whole heads to be replenished at the same time, with typical supplies available by December.
A key part of the romaine return is a new labeling standard that includes the growing region and harvest date on bags and other packaging, or on cartons for heads/hearts for bulk displays. The labels, adopted by growers, processors and other companies that pack the lettuce, began appearing on romaine products immediately after the ban was lifted.
Ediger said adding the information on value-added salads required a simple programming update to inkjet printers.
“Field-packed romaine is a little more of a project because we don’t have an ink-jetter in the field, so we’re modifying stickering equipment and will wind up with at least a couple of stickers on each package,” Ediger said.
Although the label is voluntary, the FDA is warning consumers to avoid any romaine without it. If there’s no sign on bulk displays at the store, and no store personnel can verify the romaine is not from California’s Central Coast, consumers should not purchase it, according to the FDA.
“If it does not have this information, you should not eat or use it,” according to the FDA notice.
Bonduelle Fresh Americas, which packs romaine products under the Ready Pac Foods brand, released a statement on the standards, that the company “believes this labeling agreement is another great step in ensuring a safe supply chain for romaine lettuce.”
Dole Food Co./Dole Fresh Vegetables also released a statement to consumers, pledging to “clearly and prominently to label all individual romaine packs with growing region and harvest date.
“Further, we will ask our retail partners to also clearly and prominently label any individual unwrapped whole heads of romaine lettuce available in retail stores with the growing region and harvest date.”
Hydroponic/greenhouse lettuce is also safe, according to the FDA, which said those production methods can be noted on the labels as well.
Produce trade groups worked with the FDA and romaine industry stakeholders on the label standards. A Q&A document on the new labeling standards is being updated by the industry periodically and is at and on other trade websites.
In its Nov. 28 update, the FDA released a list of the California counties where investigators believe the tainted lettuce originated:
- San Benito
- San Luis Obispo
- Santa Barbara
- Santa Cruz
The Packer’s Northeast Editor Amy Sowder contributed to this article.