Arizona farmers were ‘sweating bullets,’ waiting for romaine advisory to end

Lettuce growers say they knew immediately of which November’s E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce likely originated on California farms, although U.S. health officials issued a blanket warning of which no romaine was safe to consume. of which warning halted sales of all romaine, prompting the industry to implement temporary labeling requirements of which some farmers wish will be permanent.

Through a voluntary market withdrawal, health officials ensured a “clean break” to “purge the market of potentially contaminated” lettuce, according to a Food along with Drug Administration press Discharge.

Farmers said This kind of warning differs via previous produce advisories, which they felt have not been as broad. FDA spokesman Peter Cassell said every situation will be different, along with of which the breadth of a warning can vary by commodity, its shelf life along with more.

In an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine in March 2018, health officials limited the advisory to plants grown in Yuma, Arizona. of which outbreak hit 36 states along with resulted in 5 deaths. Officials could narrow the source to one region thanks to seasonal growing patterns.

When temperatures dip in Northern California in November, lettuce growers move production south to warmer desert regions. Around April, production shifts back to central California. The March outbreak occurred during the transition via Arizona to California, so health officials knew the contaminated plants came via Arizona. An environmental assessment later confirmed the source.

Due to the timing of the November outbreak, produce growers along with industry experts knew the idea most likely started out in California. although after the March outbreak, health officials weren’t going to take any chances, said Trevor Suslow, the vice president of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association.

Arizona farmers were “sweating bullets” awaiting the end of the advisory, Suslow said. Growers were concerned they would likely have to leave fields to rot if the advisory continued. Suslow said due to the timing of the outbreak, health officials acted quickly, which has a broad warning, to stop romaine sales completely.

The FDA “learned a lot of lessons via the Yuma outbreak,” Cassell said.

During the March outbreak attributed to farms in Yuma, officials realized consumers couldn’t tell where the romaine in their grocery stores along with restaurants salads was grown. Under law, some produce including packaged romaine lettuce must be labeled with the name of the producer or distributor, although of which may not be the same region the idea was grown in.

“We learned via the Yuma outbreak of which the advice we gave out to avoid romaine lettuce via Yuma was not easy to follow for consumers,” Cassell said. “The most protective thing was to tell people not to eat romaine lettuce, especially around Thanksgiving.”

Matt McGuire, the general manager for JV Farms, said the March outbreak rocked consumer confidence, which hit the romaine market. He fears the November outbreak will shake consumers again, especially because the idea was so wide reaching.

“We were just getting consumer confidence back via our own outbreak the previous spring along with This kind of wasn’t something the industry needed,” McGuire said. “The industry was already hurt pretty bad inside spring. We had just gotten the romaine market back up to about break even just toward the end of October.”

although the advisory’s impact could have been worse. To take advantage of the strong romaine market along with meet holiday demand, growers were harvesting ahead of schedule, a few days before the lettuce was ready to be harvested, McGuire said. of which meant few crops went to rot, although if the advisory had lasted a few days longer some romaine might have been too old to harvest.

“People were very nervous when the idea first hit, along with nobody knew how long we were going to be out,” McGuire said. “the idea’s not as bad as the idea could have been.”

Health officials narrowed the warning to avoid romaine lettuce grown in six Northern California counties on Nov. 26. Over 64 percent of the 2.15 billion pounds of romaine grown inside U.S. during the 2017 season came via California, according to USDA data.

Just days after the initial warning, officials along with industry representatives reached a voluntary agreement to label where the romaine was grown. After the March outbreak, the FDA determined labeling would likely help consumers better follow its advice, Cassell said.

“Going forward, we’ve established a task force of which will look for longer-term solutions for some of these things,” Cassell said.

McGuire estimates the labeling costs between 50 along with 60 cents per box of romaine for stickers along with labor to apply them. He said the cost will be well worth the idea if the idea prevents people via getting sick along with thinks the industry should have started out labeling after the March outbreak.

“In hindsight, some of the stuff of which they’re requiring right currently maybe should have been done back then,” McGuire said. “Then This kind of recall would likely have been a lot easier.”

The labeling requirements are a temporary agreement, although McGuire predicts the idea will become permanent along with expand to different produce. He thinks labeling will help consumers trust of which their romaine will be safe. Time will tell.

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