Jeremy L. Lane, sales manager for Baloian Farms, stands in one of the fields just outside Fresno where the company grows romaine lettuce. To the left is where the company had been harvesting romaine until they stopped last month after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a health warning on all California-grown romaine due to several consumers falling ill to E. coli bacteria. Though it has since been determined that the tainted romaine came from Central Coast counties, not here in the Valley, the unharvested lettuce – to the right – has overgrown and can’t be sold, so it will be plowed under.

published on December 7, 2018 - 7:00 AM
Written by David Castellon

If you’ve been frustrated over the ability to pick up a head of romaine lettuce at a grocery store or to order a salad at McDonald’s in recent weeks, things are looking up.

Nearly three weeks after producers and packers of romaine lettuce voluntarily stopped shipping product, and stores and restaurants across the country threw away the romaine they had, producers and packers started shipping it out again this past weekend.

The stoppage was the result of a Nov. 20 U.S. Food and Drug Administration announcement that 43 people in the U.S. and Canada had fallen ill to a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria – with 16 of them being hospitalized – apparently from having eaten California romaine lettuce harvested in the fall.

But exactly what farm or farms the infected lettuce came from federal health officials didn’t initially know. And a Nov. 28 FDA update didn’t much clarify things, stating only that the infected lettuce source was narrowed down to six coastal counties – Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Ventura – with no specific farms yet isolated.

While that’s bad news for Romaine lettuce farmers in those counties who still are not picking and shipping their lettuce, it was good news for growers in other California counties, among them Baloian Farms, which grows and packs whole-head romaine and other vegetables here in Fresno County and in the Coachella Valley.

“Those areas are both clear of the areas that were determined to possibly have the [contaminated] romaine,” said Tim Baloian CEO of Baloian Farms, which continued shipping romaine from its Coachella operation on Monday, but not at its Fresno packing house, as the company’s romaine here still is in the ground. That’s because by the time the FDA had eliminated non-coastal areas as a source, the romaine still in the ground here had over matured, so it will be plowed back into the ground.

Between the harvested lettuce that never got shipped and what will never get picked, Baloian said its too early to tell just how big the losses his business has suffered from the E. coli scare and the government’s request to not distribute any romaine.

On its online blog, Salinas-based United Vegetable Growers Cooperative reported that the FDA warning “effectively closed down the romaine industry, producing tens of millions of dollars in losses of the highly perishable crop.”

The timing was particularly hard for producers and packers, as the warning came just before Thanksgiving, normally a time when sales of greens rise.

Even with some California romaine now shipping again, the losses may continue, said Baloian, explaining that “Obviously the demand for romaine has been diminished by this scare.

“Some customers are buying romaine again, and there are some that are choosing not to buy romaine. And those that are buying are buying less than they normally would,” he said.

“It was irresponsible for the government to do this,” Baloian said, noting that FDA officials put out warnings about tainted lettuce in the spring, but at least they noted they’d traced it to the Yuma, Arizona area.

“There’s no reason they can’t trace back where the problem came from. Every box that we ship has information that can trace back where it was grown, where it was packed.”

While the produce industry has agreed to an FDA request to put stickers on romaine boxes and containers for salads using romaine, Baloian said they contain only slightly more information than standard packaging, though they do indicate the lettuce was picked after Nov. 23, which the FDA believes is after the time the tainted romaine was picked.

“It just increases our costs,” Baloian said.

As for other industries that sell or depend on romaine, the financial effects may not have been all that severe.

Hayward Lee, produce associate for the Best Buy supermarket in Lemoore, said the effects could have been worse had a non-perishable item that a store might stock up on been involved, but lettuce is highly perishable and has to be ordered daily, so only a day’s supply was lost at the three stores in the Best Buy chain.

“As of right now, it does hurt [financially] somewhat, but it’s nothing of any danger.”

Some of the financial sting has been offset by people buying more iceberg lettuce and other greens as substitutes for romaine, Lee noted.

Baloian said he’s seeing the same trend in expanded orders for other types of lettuce and spinach his company grows and sells.

Grocery sales of mixed salads using romaine have taken a hit, said Lee, adding that at the start of this week he hadn’t yet received any deliveries of those.

Unfortunately for consumers and some business owners, the loss of romaine was made worse because prices on other greens as much as tripled after the E. coli warning was issued, said John Lawson, owner of The Salad Shop, a restaurant specializing in soups and customers building their own salads in Visalia.

Not surprisingly, romaine was the most popular green on his salad bar until the warning.

“That day, I pulled all my romaine out,” having to throw away $300-$400 worth, Lawson said.

Since hearing of the romaine warning, Lawson said he has been buying green leaf and other types of lettuce in greater quantities, but their prices have just about tripled, as demand for them has gone up, likely because other romaine users are doing the same thing, he added.

“Almost all produce has gone up.”

And since the romaine warning, his customers had been eating salads less, until this past weekend, when he started receiving romaine again,” Lawson said.

“It cost me some money,” he said, noting that in recent weeks his restaurant has gone from being a salad-based business to mostly selling soups.”

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