A multistate outbreak connected to romaine from Arizona continues to have consequences for romaine from California.
Romaine has not been shipping from the Yuma growing region since April 16, but a rising number of illnesses and unanswered questions about who grew, processed and shipped the romaine have hurt demand.
The number of illnesses increased May 9 to 149 people in 29 states. One death has been reported, in California.
Given the complexity of the produce supply chain, the Food and Drug Administration has struggled to pinpoint the source of the chopped romaine that sickened most of those affected.
Health officials said April 27 that the agency was looking at about two dozen farms as possible sources but was still in the records phase of the investigation. Sampling of farms had not yet begun. On May 9, the FDA had no new information to share.
Timeline of the E. coli outbreak
Hover over the buttons on the image to read about key events from April 10 on. Click on the links to read more.
Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole and Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle have both expressed that romaine sales have been affected.
Kyla Oberman, director of marketing for Tanimura & Antle, said May 7 the company hoped to see normalcy resume soon given that all product shipping now is from California.
“We have felt the effects of the romaine outbreak by seeing an increase in demand of our green and red leaf, Artisan lettuces and iceberg, and a strong decrease in demand of all romaine products in the recent past weeks,” Oberman said. “We saw our retail and foodservice customers, who reacted in a commendable manner, follow the advice of the CDC by clearing shelves as appropriate and taking every measure to ensure that the product they are receiving and providing for consumption is product grown in California.”
For the second straight week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture shipping point trends report — released May 8 — noted that demand for California romaine has declined sharply. Price data from the USDA was similarly dismal.
F.o.b. prices for 24-count cartons of romaine from Salinas-Watsonville were mostly $6.35-$7.55 on May 7, down from $7.35-8.65 on May 2.
Prices for 12 three-count packages of hearts of romaine from Salinas-Watsonville were mostly $8.35-$9.65, down from $10.35-11.65 on May 2.
On May 8, 2017, the low end of f.o.b.s for cartons of hearts were $12.50 — and the USDA said at the time those were “much lower” than the previous week.
Richard Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension advisor based in Salinas, also said the outbreak is hurting romaine sales.
“It’s having an effect,” Smith said May 7. “This is the problem — lettuce is pretty expensive to grow, and you’ve got to cover your costs. You can lose money, at this point the bigger growers can afford to lose for a period of time, but then they’ve got to make it up, and it just makes it hard. We’re not sure how the year’s going to go.
“I guess the good news is that the consumers are being sophisticated enough to be focusing on the romaine (versus all lettuce) ... The FDA doesn’t want to clear romaine yet because they think that the lettuce from Yuma might have a 21-day shelf life, so until the FDA clears it and then that news gets clearly articulated, I think it’s going to be a damper. The problem is that you don’t need much of a damper on the lettuce market to cause problems.
“But hopefully the growers are mostly pretty diverse to be able to weather this,” Smith said. “The main problem would be somebody who’s really deeply invested in romaine. I know some growers are, there’s some growers that tend to grow more romaine than others, and some big growers, but if they’re diverse enough, hopefully they’ll be okay.”
Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said the steady drip of negative news has contributed to the pressure on prices.
“The market is down,” Horsfall said. “There’s no question the market is very soft.”
Smith had not heard any reports of growers disking fields, but he did not dismiss the possibility as unreasonable.
“I wouldn’t rule it out, because that does happen,” Smith said.
Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, expressed some frustration about the level of interaction between the organization and the FDA. She said the FDA has declined to take the industry up on some offers for insight on records, water sources and supply chain operations.
McEntire said May 9 that while issues around confidentiality are certainly important, she hoped the agency would not hesitate to collaborate with produce industry organizations if it could speed up the investigation.
At least two lawsuits have been filed in which people allege they became ill after eating romaine at Panera Bread and Red Lobster, respectively.