Farmers frustrated after tainted romaine tied to Central Coast

SALINAS — Lettuce is king on California’s Central Coast, where row crops and produce stands line the roadways in a region that boasts of being the Salad Bowl of the World.

So it struck deep when federal authorities this week linked a rash of severe bacterial infections to romaine lettuce from California’s Central Coast. Now farmers who adopted a host of safety measures after local spinach was tied to a deadly 2006 outbreak fear another battle to win back consumers’ trust.

“It’s been frustrating,” said Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, an agricultural trade group. “It’s had a significant impact on all growers, shippers, distributors and producers of romaine lettuce, not just here in California but across the nation. There’s certainly apprehension.”

The anxiety has been growing since the Food and Drug Administration warned Nov. 20 that it was investigating an illness outbreak from a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria linked to romaine lettuce that has since sickened at least 43 people in 12 states. The FDA at the time advised consumers to avoid all romaine lettuce and urged producers to pull their product. The intestinal bacteria can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, kidney failure and death.

SALINAS, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 27: Fields are tilled Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, in Salinas, Calif., as health authorities indicated Monterey County as the probable source of a recent E. coli-tainted Romaine lettuce scare. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

On Monday, the FDA said that while the source has yet to be identified, “current evidence indicates this romaine was harvested in the Central Coast growing regions of northern and central California” and that romaine grown elsewhere or indoors should be safe.

Along the Central Coast, the romaine already has been harvested, as production shifts in the winter to the desert regions of southern California, Arizona, Florida and Mexico. But with producers pulling their product, it’s left a hole in the lives of a community that loves its lettuce.

At the Barn Fresh Produce stand along Highway 1 in Moss Landing, Maria Gonzales hasn’t seen a romaine shipment in two weeks and worries that “sales will go down.” And Katie Coo, a Cal State Monterey Bay student from Seaside, is growing uneasy about the lack of lettuce to fill her craving.

“All I’ve wanted lately is salad, but it sucks because there is none,” Coo said. “Even the mixed greens have romaine.”

Discounted produce, including heads of Romaine lettuce, are found at a produce stand in Moss Landing on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. Monterey County has been identified by health officials as the probable source of E. coli-tainted Romaine lettuce. (Hannah Hagemann/Monterey Herald) 

Down the road at Pezzini Farms, Mary Allaman, working the cash box, had no romaine to sell. Still, she was trying to stay hopeful that demand for other veggies and greens would prop up sales. Brussels sprouts were the big sellers for stands this Thanksgiving.

“We can substitute for other lettuce like red leaf and green leaf,” Allaman said.

But what may be impossible to substitute in the short term is the hit to the Salinas Valley’s reputation. In Monterey County, which includes the agriculturally rich Salinas Valley, leaf lettuce including romaine is the number one crop, worth about $830 million in 2017, according to the 2017 Monterey County Crop Report. Fresh romaine was valued at $563 million.

A dozen years ago, the region was rocked by an outbreak of E. coli illness from spinach that sickened more than 200 people across the country, three of whom died. Health officials eventually tied the outbreak to a single grower, Salinas-based Mission Organics, which leased part of a ranch in San Benito County where investigators found bacteria genetically matching the germs that had made people sick.

Health officials were unable to pinpoint exactly how the contamination occurred. Investigators said it was possible that tainted river water could have seeped into the wells that irrigated the spinach fields or that it could have been carried into the field by a wandering cow or pig. E. coli bacteria generally originate from animal or human feces.

The outbreak was a wake-up call for farmers. Sales of bagged fresh spinach plunged 40 percent and took years to rebound. The industry responded with a set of comprehensive safety protocols that included establishment of a California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, which establishes a set of safety measures and inspections to which participating growers are held by state law. A sister organization governs growers in Arizona.

CHUALAR, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 27: Field hands collect irrigation pipes, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, in the agricultural fields around Chualar, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

But the frustration for growers is that with a product such as leafy vegetables, mostly grown outdoors and eaten fresh, there is no guaranteed “kill step” to eliminate harmful bacteria, like pasteurization for milk. So while the new measures help, they can’t guarantee germ-free salad.

Earlier this year, an outbreak from romaine grown in Arizona revealed gaps in the safety protocols that have since been updated.

“Every time something like this happens, it’s something new and different and something that was not considered before and monitored or tested,” said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. “These things can come from many different areas — it’s grown outside so it’s hard to control. It’s not like in a warehouse where you can control it 100 percent.”

While the FDA advisory zeroed in on the Central Coast, where this year’s harvest is done, most growers operate in a variety of regions to maintain supply and appreciated the FDA taking steps to clarify the origin. That way, they at least can continue to sell the new winter lettuce that will be coming out of the desert.

The latest outbreak shows that “the best we can do is have preventative measures in place,” said Deverl Maserang, president of Earthbound Farm, an organic grower based in San Juan Bautista that has operations throughout California and other parts of the West.

A produce worker stocks shelves near romaine lettuce (top shelf, right) at a supermarket in Washington, DC on November 20, 2018 – US health officials warned consumers not to eat any romaine lettuce and to throw away any they might have in their homes, citing an outbreak of E. coli poisoning. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images) 

“While we don’t have that ‘kill step,’ we have 12 years of success with no foodborne pathogen outbreak or recall in the 12 years since the 2006 spinach recall.”

While he expects the latest outbreak to soften lettuce sales for a while, he believes growers will be able to restore consumer confidence.

“At the end of the day,” Maserang said, “we as producers need to make sure every product we put out is safe.”

Source: mercurynews
Farmers frustrated after tainted romaine tied to Central Coast