The recent E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce is now over, and while San Benito County lettuce farmers were deemed safe, they could face challenges during the next growing season.
Sixty-two people in 16 states and the District of Columbia were infected in an October foodborne illness outbreak linked to romaine grown on the Central Coast. Twenty-five people were hospitalized, though no deaths were reported.
The Centers for Disease Control identified the outbreak strain in sediment collected from an agriculture water reservoir on an Adam Bros. Farming Inc. location in Santa Barbara County. The outbreak was declared over on Jan. 9. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the farm has not shipped romaine since Nov. 20.
Fortunately, San Benito County growers did not suffer a financial loss this time around because romaine in the area had already been harvested and shipped before the recall was announced. According to grower and former San Benito County Farm Bureau president Richard Bianchi, the crop may not do as well in the coming season. The county’s 2017 Crop Report shows romaine sales amounted to $25.6 million.
“We’re getting reports some of these lettuce companies are changing their salad blends, staying away from anything that has the word ‘romaine’ in it,” Bianchi said.
He explained that farmers work with major Salinas processor-shippers, such as Tanimura & Antle or Fresh Express, whose contracts dictate 95 percent of what is grown throughout the year. Farmers no longer simply plant a crop and hope someone will buy it, Bianchi said. Each farmer is one among many who make up the supply chain.
What determines everything along the supply chain, though, is shelf space at the local grocer, according to Bianchi. He said that years ago, grocers used to have bins filled with different types of lettuce.
“Now, the biggest amount of shelf space is filled with value-added lettuce [bagged salads],” he said. “As a grower, I don’t just plant some lettuce and go to a shipper to sell it. These processors have these plants worth millions of dollars and systems [for cleaning, bagging and shipping] set up. They need to run those plants at optimal performance 24/7/365. The best way to do that is to contract out all your commodities [vegetables]. They know what’s coming on a daily basis. They ’re paying for that shelf space in the store, so they want to keep them full.”
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