Lettuce Is Twice as Expensive, Thanks to Romaine E. coli Outbreak
American shoppers didn't waste any time disposing of romaine lettuce when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a national ban in November due to possible E. coli contamination. And while many retailers removed various lettuces from their produce sections, new industry reports suggests that prices for other lettuce varieties actually soared after the CDC's latest ban.
According to data sourced from the United States Department of Agriculture, it only took a week for consumer demand to cause prices to nearly double, CNBC reports. On November 19, a day before the CDC's latest ban on romaine lettuce, a carton of iceberg lettuce sold at wholesale market value for $20.85 maximum—but on November 21, just a day after the CDC's announcement, the same carton of iceberg lettuce sold for a high of $39.56.
Even though the CDC has since recanted its national romaine lettuce ban after discovering the source of the contamination in California, it seems that consumers may still be steering clear of the leafy green. On November 26, the date when the CDC formally lifted its advisory, the price of the same carton of iceberg lettuce was selling for a high of $45.65 each.
USDA reports point to dwindling supplies of iceberg lettuce, saying that consumer demand simply exceeded what was available on the market—and iceberg lettuce wasn't the only variety with noticeable price increases. Varieties including Boston, red leaf, and green leaf lettuces also followed a similar demand increase.
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"As always seems to happen, there is an initial response when you take a major component out of the marketplace and others start to fill that gap," Trevor Suslow, the vice president of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association, told CNBC. "Prices certainly have taken an increase."
It's worth noting that romaine accounts for a rather large component of lettuce sales in the United States—for a 52-week period that ended on November 10, romaine made up 38 percent of national lettuce production valued at $1.6 billion, according to Nielsen figures.
Despite earlier romaine recalls and safety advisory notices in 2018, demand for romaine was steady in the days before the latest recall. However, sales data wasn't available during the blanket ban, and it remains to be seen if shoppers have resumed their romaine-buying habits.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has devised a plan to prevent another widespread recall in the future, asking producers and distributors to physically label romaine products with their farm's location and the date it was harvested. And farmers in Yuma, Arizona have taken new steps to keep this upcoming season of romaine lettuce safe from contamination. But one local farmer tells CNBC he's unsure if consumers will bounce back from this latest recall so easily.
"We've seen, maybe, folks have regained confidence more quickly here with romaine," John Boelts told CNBC. "We're seeing OK demand so far, but we'll see how that holds."