Another E. Coli Outbreak Threatens US Lettuce Markets

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Supply shortages of romaine lettuce, coupled with the second warning in two years of E. coli food poisoning, is expected to boost US retail prices for the popular lettuce variety.

The US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned consumers on Friday not to eat any romaine, or products containing romaine, grown around Salinas, California. Monterey County, which includes Salinas, is by far the biggest lettuce producing area in California, which in turn is the biggest producing state.

Prices for romaine and romaine hearts were already elevated ahead of the CDC warning, amid supply shortages as insect damage, mildew, and other issues have negatively affected the crop. The price of a carton of romaine peaked earlier this month at around $32.55 in the Salinas area, according to USDA AMS data. Low yields on lettuce aren’t expected to pick up until December, as the California lettuce season winds down and production begins to shift to Arizona.

The CDC warned consumers not to eat romaine lettuce grown around Salinas, California, because of an outbreak of E. coli food poisoning. It was the second such outbreak in two years. Salinas is in Monterey County, the largest lettuce producing area in the US. This tree map shows lettuce planted area in various California counties.

An outbreak of E. coli in 2018, also just before the US Thanksgiving holiday, resulted in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calling for the withdrawal of all romaine products and caused romaine prices to spike. Produce industry officials formed a Romaine Task Force, whose recommendations were recently released, to take proactive measures regarding contamination.

In the latest food poisoning outbreak, the CDC said that as of Nov. 22, 40 people in 16 states had been infected with E. coli. Epidemiological evidence, as well as whole genome sequencing, point to romaine lettuce from the Salinas region, although the investigation is continuing, the CDC said. The agency said consumers should also avoid purchasing lettuce if its origin isn’t clearly labeled. The FDA said it will be collecting romaine samples in California and Arizona over the next year to test for E. coli and salmonella.

Some romaine producers have issued recalls, including Missa Bay, which markets romaine and romaine-containing products under brand names including Ready Pac, Bonduelle, and a number of private-label brains. Missa Bay, based in New Jersey, said the recalled items were shipped to distribution locations throughout the United States.

Illnesses reported from an E. coli outbreak at this time last year were traced back to lettuce grown in Central and Northern California. Over the following weeks, the prices of romaine lettuce (blue line) and romaine hearts (green line) rose sharply, reaching record highs by mid-November. The CDC last week reported another E. coli outbreak from lettuce grown in the same region. 

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