Written by Gabriel Dillard
Lettuce take a moment to talk about this romaine scare.
With that out of the way, this latest E. coli outbreak is really a big deal for local leafy green growers. Fresno County produced $37.9 million worth of leaf lettuce — red, green, butter and romaine varieties — last year.
It’s an even bigger deal for our friends over the Coast Range. In Monterey County, romaine lettuce was a $655.69 million crop last year.
That’s why the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s blanket warning for U.S. consumers not to eat romaine lettuce — two days before Thanksgiving, mind you — has the lettuce industry, well, wilting.
As someone who’s never given much credence to the “five-second rule,” I may not be the most qualified to weigh in on food safety. E. coli poses a real threat, especially to the most vulnerable among us. A reported 32 people have fallen ill so far as a result. Thankfully, no deaths have been reported.
But I also rely on the experts whose ability to provide a safe product is their whole livelihood. Over at Baloian Farms in Fresno, CEO Tim Baloian told ABC 30 that 2,000 cartons of unsold lettuce are currently sitting in his cold storage, not destined for Thanksgiving tables.
Farmers are blasting the CDC for being unable to determine the source of the contamination, even though growers and packers face ever-more stringent requirements to track that data. The industry sees this as a “knee-jerk” reaction.
And it will likely have long-term ramifications. It was ten years ago that tomatoes were the boogeyman due to a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,400 people. Federal officials then made a “Keystone Cops” effort then to contain the outbreak, again issuing a blanket warning on tomatoes. It turned out that Serrano and jalapeño peppers from Mexico were the real culprit.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there still weren’t folks out there swearing off salsa.
This scare too will pass. But not before innocent growers pay the price.