Interest in romaine increased in mid-August as iceberg prices rose due to supply issues — an about-face from the situation earlier this year when romaine demand dropped following an E. coli outbreak.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported f.o.b. prices for iceberg Aug. 15 were mostly $21.45-23.55 for cartons of film-wrapped 24s from the Salinas-Watsonville area.
Prices were mostly $10.15-11.55 on Aug. 8, up from mostly $8.15-9.65 on Aug. 1.
Mark McBride, salesman for Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Family Farms, said erratic weather this season is most likely the reason for the shortage.
Relatively hot stretches followed by cold ones — in what typically is a consistent, mild climate — have prompted irregular conditions in the fields, and weights have been off.
As a result, bin weights have plummeted from about 1,000 pounds on average three weeks ago to about 700 pounds on average, McBride said Aug. 16.
He noted that weather has been causing issues across the industry and that good communication with customers is key so they know what is happening and what the outlook is.
McBride said he does not know when the market will return to normal, but supplies are expected to be lighter for at least two or three more weeks.
Given the iceberg shortage, buyers are looking for alternatives, which has helped boost the market for romaine, McBride said.
The USDA reported prices Aug. 15 for 24s cartons of romaine from Salinas-Watsonville were mostly $7.45-8.65, with demand described as fairly good.
Two weeks earlier, prices were $6.25-7.55.
E. coli’s wake
Romaine sales dropped earlier this year when federal health agencies linked a multistate E. coli outbreak to the commodity in general rather than one company.
More than 200 people were sickened, and five people died.
McBride described the months since as a gradual rebuilding of demand for the vegetable, as is often the case after significant outbreaks.
“I think consumers are regaining confidence in the supply and in the industry,” McBride said. “It does seem to be rebounding here as the fall comes on.”
The latest FreshFacts on Retail report, put together by the United Fresh Produce Association and Nielsen, shows that overall lettuce sales in the second quarter of 2018 were down $69 million from the same time period in 2017. The report attributed the difference to the outbreak.
The dollar declines in the lettuce category accounted for nearly 75% of dollar declines for vegetables overall, according to the report.
Dollar sales of lettuce in the second quarter were $400 million, a 15% drop from 2017. Volume in the second quarter was 249 million pounds, a 6.5% drop.
Packaged salads escaped the effect of consumer concern, however, with sales in that category actually growing slightly.