The Food and Drug Administration is still working to determine the source of a multistate E. coli outbreak tied to Arizona romaine, and the produce industry has noticed some customers altering purchase patterns as consumers question whether romaine is safe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been clear that its warning applies only to product from the Yuma growing region, and the industry has completed its annual transition to California, but some wariness about romaine remains.
Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole Food Co., said it is too early to tell what the overall, long-term effect of the outbreak will be on demand for the vegetable, but consumer confusion has been an issue.
“We are 100% focused on safe product first, but there has been a great deal of incorrect and misinformation circulating throughout consumer media,” Goldfield said April 26. “Numerous stories have erroneously reported a recall around romaine and more reports that any and all romaine is tainted.
“Although romaine from Yuma has not been shipped for weeks, some retailers have removed all product containing romaine from their shelves — thereby exacerbating the confusion among consumers in stores,” Goldfield said. “Certainly all these factors have contributed to negative impacts on current business around romaine, with the extended consequence yet to be determined.”
Chelsea, Mass.-based wholesaler Coosemans Boston does not handle romaine but has also seen a change since the outbreak — a positive one.
Near the end of the week of April 16, the company started seeing more orders for hydroponically grown Boston lettuce.
“We were like, ‘Wow, the numbers are going crazy,’ and then this week, too, it’s just continued,” vice president Maurice Crafts said April 26. “We’re getting slammed with orders for hydro lettuce, much more than we normally do.
“That’s what it is — a lot of customers are going from romaine, they’re going to other options, so we’ve seen a huge increase in our hydroponic lettuce business since this outbreak occurred,” Crafts said.
Most of that product has been going to foodservice, he noted.
Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, said lost romaine sales are only part of the business disruption that accompanies an outbreak like the current one.
The other part of the equation is answering copious questions from customers and consumers. A significant amount of time and effort has to be diverted to that activity, McEntire said.
Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said April 24 the market for romaine had certainly not collapsed, but he noted any effect the outbreak is having on demand could intensify if the situation remains in the news.
The spotlight does not appear to be going anywhere soon — the CDC updated the number of illnesses associated with the outbreak from 53 to 84 on April 25. Forty-two people have been hospitalized, with nine developing a type of kidney failure. Cases have been reported in 19 states.
The FDA continues to sort through thousands of records in its traceback investigation, said press officer Peter Cassell.
Because the FDA is still in the records phase, it has not yet started taking samples on farms.
When the CDC announced April 20 that illnesses had been reported at a correctional facility in Alaska, there was some hope that it would be a break in the case, but while the information gained there was very helpful, it did not explain the nationwide outbreak, Cassell said.
The FDA is looking into multiple distribution chains. Environmental sampling is required to definitively link an outbreak to a specific farm.
As the investigation continues, with customers and consumers wanting to confirm where romaine originates, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has offered its members the option to use the blue license plate CA GROWN label on their products.
The CLGMA has joined the Buy California Marketing Agreement to facilitate the use of the logo and other marketing elements.
“We just sort of started making people aware of it a couple of days ago, so it’s still very early in that process, but we’ve had a good response from our own industry, and we’re getting the word out to retailers and other buyers,” Horsfall said April 24. “I don’t have any kind of broad conclusions yet, but I think it’s going to be very popular.”