Consumers may have read the recent release from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) with a warning not to consume romaine lettuce from Salinas Valley, California.
Do not overlook this important detail: this alert only applied to lettuce grown in Salinas Valley.
Another outbreak — the fifth in two years — of one of the most commonly consumed lettuce varieties in the United States. Another outbreak shakes consumer confidence and hurts farmers too. Outside of public health concern, all farmers who grow lettuce anywhere in the U.S. can suffer economic loss when an outbreak occurs.
Outbreaks and public health safety are serious concerns, and with them come ripple effects.
In addition to preventable death and illness from food-related outbreaks, there are economic and social impacts for farms and business, even those that may have no relation to where and what the outbreak stemmed from. The CDC noted on Nov. 14 that 67 people were infected across 19 states with the outbreak strain E.coli O157:H7. Similarly, the April 2018 romaine outbreak linked to Yuma, Arizona growing region infected 210 people, caused 96 hospitalizations and five deaths across 30 states. Hauntingly, three more outbreaks had similar outcomes.
Did you know 95 percent of lettuce is grown in Arizona and California? These states provide millions of servings of lettuce to the U.S. daily, and it’s generally safe to consume.
In 2018, lettuce farmers across the entire country felt the impact of the outbreaks, as did food establishments that had to pull romaine off the shelves or menu. Even with advanced technology, it takes time to trace an outbreak to a specific source.
Every step of the supply chain, including the consumer, plays a role in ensuring food safety.
Farms, distributors and retailers take proactive steps to assure their product is safe; consumers can do the same. Consumers should pay attention to where food is grown, by checking the label or purchasing from local farms outside of the recalled region.
Many consumers are also tuning into the practices utilized to grow food, by reading labels and asking questions of farms and retailers.
Rinsing produce before eating is also an important preventative step.
These behaviors can increase buyer awareness and confidence of produce safety. If an outbreak occurs, CDC recommendations should be followed until it is certain that the recalled produce is no longer contaminated.
However, there is no need to completely halt consumption of the crop. Simply having a conversation with the farm, market, grocery retailer, convenience store, etc. will likely be able to inform you of where it comes from and give you an idea of the food safety practices being implemented to grow that product.
Outbreaks can lead to sickness or death, economic loss, food waste, social disrupt and more.
Proactive approaches to reduce the risks of foodborne illnesses are crucial to preventing future outbreaks. Food safety is everyone’s business. Ask yourself: “Where does my food come from?”
Recognize that the food system is large and complex but not all lettuce needs to be trashed, and you play an important role.
About the author: Michelle Jacokes is a produce safety technician working with fresh produce growers to reduce microbial risks on farms in Manistee, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Benzie counties. Services are free, voluntary and confidential. For more information about the Michigan On-Farm Produce Safety Program visit manisteecd2.org and locate the Produce Safety page under Landowner Assistance. Contact Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 231-889-9666 with questions.