The recent E. coli outbreak may have decreased consumer confidence in leafy greens. The Wall Street Journal reported that all types of lettuce have declined in sales. The breakout that happened recently involving romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona caused one death and 172 other consumers to get sick. Since then, total lettuce sales are down 27 percent and romaine lettuce sales are down about 45 percent.
Due to the outbreak producers had lost crops worth thousands, which were either left to rot or dumped. State officials and FDA blamed inconsistent records and incomplete shipping information for the outbreak and delay in the investigation. They were, however, able to trace the one farm in Arizona that had sickened people in Alaska.
However, the agency still doesn’t know where or how the contamination occurred in the supply chain. Since there has been no definite source traced for the outbreak, retailers might be held partially responsible for this; Walmart is being accused of exposing consumers to possible contaminated produce and might be facing a class action lawsuit filled by outbreak victims.
Additionally, the incident caused nine food safety and consumer groups to ask FDA to designate leafy greens as high risk. Some groups included the Consumers Union, STOP Foodborne Illness and Center for Science in the Public Interest. They sent a six-page letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb asking the FDA to propose new requirements within six months, including stronger recordkeeping requirements for produce.
“Consumers can have confidence that government and industry have the information they need to quickly and effectively respond and protect the public’s health,” the groups wrote in their letter to the FDA.
In addition, the groups pointed out that FSMA section 204 required the FDA to set up enhanced recordkeeping; this was a law passed seven years ago that has not been implemented by the FDA to date.
This is an important rule to implement considering this isn’t the first time leafy greens have sickened consumers. Dole bagged spinach was also linked to an E. coli outbreak that sickened 204 people and killed three in 2006. After this it took more than six months for their sales to go back to normal. Over the years, leafy greens were also responsible for a large percent of foodborne illnesses. An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that between 1998 and 2008, leafy vegetables were responsible for 22 percent of foodborne illnesses.
Aside from the groups, producers are getting involved as well. Some industry groups had formed a Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force to assess the situation last week. Members included the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, the Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements and Western Growers.
“Like many of you, we have questions about how romaine lettuce came to be the source of this recent outbreak. As families, farmers and scientists who grow the food served at your tables and our own, we need to make sure that leafy greens are safe,” the task force stated in a release.
It took 68 weeks after the 2006 outbreak for spinach sales to recover, so it’s no surprise it will take time for these sales of romaine lettuce to go back to normal. However, If the FDA and the task force can help create stronger record keeping, consumers can start trusting the produce again.