What you need to know about Romaine Lettuce
How does Romaine get contaminated? Two primary reasons. Maybe the grower’s irrigation source water has been affected – maybe they are near a feed lot? Maybe a raccoon drowned in their well? Or, the grower added manure to their field to increase soil fertility and it wasn’t composted properly. Then while harvesting, the lettuce cutter sticks their knife in the soil, picks up bacteria, and transfers it to lettuce.
Why Romaine? Again, several reasons. One is that Romaine is a very popular vegetable with 4 million cases harvested in California a WEEK, so a likely candidate. Two is that only a handful of vegetables are sliced off at ground level where there could be contamination, like cabbage or celery etc. Of those, nearly all are cooked most of the time, which kills bacteria. You are really only left with lettuce as being the probable cause of an e Coli outbreak, something that all the people who reported their illness had eaten prior to them getting sick.
Public health authorities in Canada and the U.S. have stated that all the occurrences were reported in October, and knowing that it can take a week or two to manifest, the actual suspect would have been lettuce grown earlier in October. Even with a potential shelf life of up to 5 weeks, this should be over, shouldn’t it?
Absolutely not and here’s why! Farmers plant Romaine with staged transplant and harvest dates in different blocks to have continuous supply. The one block from the single (yet to be identified) farmer that very likely caused this outbreak may have just finished harvesting and packing yet another block in mid-November – with the same soil contamination or infected irrigation water – and that lettuce could have been easily sold last week. You want to take the chance? Until the culprit is found, there isn’t much, if any, romaine shipping out of California – no bulk, no salad and no hearts. Salad mix companies like Organic Girl or Earthbound have eliminated Romaine from their mixes. This will be, at retail, a $100-150 Million dollar a week write-off for the produce industry every week until reports of disease stop, or the farm is identified.
Is this organic Romaine that’s the problem? No one knows and no one will announce it. The reason is simple. While there is less of a chance that it is organic lettuce because of much lower production compared to non-organic, even then organic growers who have too much lettuce at any given time have the option of moving it into the conventional supply chain for less money, so government agencies aren’t going to distinguish until they have all the facts.
Why is no one selling Romaine in Western Canada, with no reported illness here? That one farmer, harvesting one block (let’s say 5 acres) of Romaine in September may have sold it all to a distributor in Montreal and another one in Philadelphia, which is why very few people have gotten sick in the West. However, the patch they theoretically cut and shipped last week could have also been affected, and could have been shipped anywhere in North America. This mistake happened to a grower who is part of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, an industry created standard created after the e Coli spinach disaster a decade ago, which includes very frequent water testing. Only LGMA members are allowed to sell greens into Canada – that’s a CFIA rule that invoked back in the day for anything that could potentially be mixed into salad clams – from cabbage to herbs to arugula. This tainted Romaine is not coming from a funky little grower in Alabama, but from a farm with frequent water testing, food safety protocols and large enough to have national distribution.
With that huge volume of Romaine cut every week, having complete traceability is nearly impossible, especially with the largest packers growing on contract for the more familiar brands. Some producers may pack under 10 different brands for different retail chains and wholesalers.