Just two weeks after a nationwide recall of romaine lettuce related to an outbreak of E. coli was announced, the leafy green vegetable is back on the shelves of local grocery stores.
On Dec. 4, BenitoLink found salad mixes and packaged romaine and romaine hearts at the three major grocery outlets in Hollister: Nob Hills Foods, Safeway and Lucky. Produce employees at Safeway and Lucky confirmed that shipments began arriving from Yuma, AZ a few days ago. While all three outlets had bagged products from area grower-shippers, including Fresh Express, Taylor Farms and D’Arrigo Brothers’ Andy Boy, only Lucky had bulk romaine.
Safeway’s produce employee said bulk romaine had been on order a few days, but did not know when it might arrive. Hollister Super, which has two stores in Hollister and the Windmill Market in San Juan Bautista, is selling bulk romaine. Elvira Bustillos, the grocery manager said, “We have a limit of five cases per customer.”
The outbreak was first announced Nov. 1. As of Nov. 26 it had resulted in 43 people in 12 states becoming ill, with the last reported illness onset date being Oct. 31.
In a Nov. 30 press release the FDA said the suspected romaine was harvested in the Central Coastal region of California, covering Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties
“This outbreak is tragic and devastating for the people who are suffering from this foodborne illness,” a Nov. 20 Grower-Shipper Association of Central California press release stated. “On behalf of the farmers and farming companies we represent, we cannot express how truly sorry we are to those who have been sickened. And we must also apologize to all consumers who enjoy romaine lettuce in their diets but whose confidence in this product has been shaken.”
After talks with major leafy greens producers, distributors and produce industry trade groups, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control said Nov. 26 that they have instituted a voluntary labeling agreement in which romaine lettuce entering the market would be labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date.
Before the 2006 E. coli outbreak related to baby spinach, the government would concentrate on identifying a specific source or grower of contaminated fresh produce. Even after it did, it was never able to actually determine how the contamination occurred. Earthbound Farms and Fresh Express led the industry in devising new tracking methods to follow vegetables from field to processing, but the government’s current approach acts as a broad warning that shuts down an entire sector, in effect harming all growers instead of a few.
While San Benito County is miniscule in production of romaine lettuce when compared to Monterey County, the crop does account for $27 million in revenues for local farmers out of a total $298 million in crop production, according to the San Benito County Farm Bureau.
Information available through Nov. 30 has not narrowed the potential sources of contaminated romaine lettuce to a specific farm, processor, shipper or distribution center. Romaine harvested from locations outside the California Central Coast region did not appear to be related to the current outbreak, according to the FDA.
The FDA said that based on discussions with producers and distributors, romaine lettuce entering the market will now be labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date, or labeled as being hydroponically or greenhouse grown. If it does not have this information, the FDA said consumers should not eat or use it. If romaine lettuce does have this labeling information, the FDA advised avoiding any romaine lettuce product from the Central Coast growing regions until further notice.
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