There were 29 recalls of romaine lettuce between 1998 and 2018. In 2017 and 2018 alone, we had three outbreaks associated with romaine that lead to 376 illnesses, 158 hospitalizations, and 7 deaths. It leads us to ask, should we be considering alternatives to romaine if it’s so hard to grow safely?
It turns out that there’s a very strong pattern, stretching back nearly 20 years, of seasonal outbreaks. For half the year, nearly 75% of our romaine comes from the Central Coast of California. For the rest of the year, that same percentage comes from the Yuma, Arizona region. The USDA has tracked the past two decades of outbreaks and found a strong pattern of outbreaks happening at the tail end of each of those two main growing seasons: March and April (Arizona) and September and October (California).
Why this happens is still unknown. The USDA suggests that it might have to do with seasonal movement of animals, change management and lapses in food safety on farms as production winds down, or seasonal temperature impacting bacterial growth. There’s more research that needs to be done to determine the cause, and how we can prevent it.
In the meantime, we’re still left asking the question: if it’s so hard to keep romaine safe, should we be looking for alternatives? Until we have more research and ways to keep romaine safe during these peak months, it might be prudent to find some alternatives in March, April, September, and October.
Source: Astill, Gregory, Vegetables and Pulses Outlook, VGS-362-SA, May 6, 2019, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.