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2018 wasn't kind to salad lovers

The year is ending on a particularly low, leafless note thanks to an ongoing investigation into romaine-related illnesses

2018 hasn’t been kind to salad lovers. The year is ending on a particularly low, leafless note thanks to an ongoing investigation into romaine-related illnesses.

Due to E. coli contamination, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has warned residents of Ont., Que. and N.B. not to eat romaine lettuce (including in salad mixes) unless they can verify it wasn’t grown in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Barbara counties in Calif. What’s worse, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recently issued a related Class 1 (high risk) food recall warning for potentially E. coli-tainted cauliflower, red leaf lettuce and green leaf lettuce produced by Santa Maria, Calif.-based Adam Bros. Farming. The scope of the recall is “possibly national” with six provinces (Ont., Que., N.B., P.E.I., N.S. and Nfld.) named explicitly in the warning.

The PHAC is investigating 28 illnesses linked to Calif.-grown romaine lettuce, and in the U.S., there have been 59 illnesses and 23 hospitalizations, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While foodborne illnesses are never welcome, this is an especially bad time of year for Canadians to be dealing with produce-related outbreaks, says Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. “We have a highly vulnerable economy during the winter. Most of the produce we actually eat in the winter is imported. When something like this happens, typically you would see prices soar for some products, and I would probably target lettuce and cauliflower in particular.”

Lettuce is sold at high profit margins (upwards of 50 per cent), he adds. As you may have already encountered, many retailers – including Sobeys, Loblaw, Metro and Costco – stopped selling romaine when alerts began in November, regardless of whether or not they encompassed their province. While being proactive was “a good call,” every time a food safety issue of this nature arises, a substantial amount of food goes unsold and refunds are issued. Industry-wide, Charlebois explains, the fallout from this outbreak alone could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. And there’s no guarantee that consumer confidence in romaine lettuce will be restored once a solution is found

The very nature of these systems means one mistake will affect many at once. Rigour cannot be compromised
Sylvain Charlebois

Witness the 2006 North American E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach. Nearly 200 Americans were infected and three died, according to the final update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One Canadian case was also confirmed. “Spinach never recovered, really, from what happened. And that’s how kale happened,” says Charlebois. “A lot of people went to kale and that’s how it became popular. Kale was seen as a replacement for spinach, which was seen as an unreliable source of vitamins and minerals. With lettuce, a lot of people are concerned about substitution.”

The food safety breach resulted in the creation of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA), “a food safety program that verifies science-based farming practices using government audits and requires 100 per cent compliance.” According to Food Safety Magazine, 115 LGMA members – including Adam Bros. Farming – grow nearly all (99 per cent) of the leafy greens produced in the state. And while the program has resulted in some positive outcomes, this latest instance of E. coli contamination is clearly not a shining moment. “I looked at the statistics in the latest (LGMA) annual report and I was shocked to see that (self-regulated) audits are down 47 per cent since 2010,” says Charlebois. “I was wondering, ‘Why are we dealing with this massive recall in light of the fact that we have an industry that got its act together back in 2006?’ And I wondered whether or not this drop in audits actually has something to do with it.”

In September, following yet another romaine E. coli scare, Walmart announced that it would require all leafy greens suppliers to use blockchain by fall 2019 in an effort to provide full transparency from farm to retailer. Some view the technology as a panacea, Charlebois says, but it can only be as useful as the information it contains: in order for blockchain to be effective, it must hold data; and one of the best ways to collect data is through audits. More than a decade after the spinach outbreak, he suggests it may be time for the industry to once again contemplate the deadly oversights: “This is about mitigating the risks that come with relying on global food supply chains. The very nature of these systems means one mistake will affect many at once.

Rigour cannot be compromised.” After all, lives depend on it.