A Guide to Romaine Lettuce Production
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to investigate the current outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 associated with romaine lettuce and is focusing on production from California’s central coast. Public health agencies have amended their advisory and shipments of romaine from some regions have resumed.
After discussions with major leafy greens producers and distributors, romaine lettuce now entering the market is being labeled with a harvest location and a harvest date. This will assure consumers that it was not grown in areas currently under investigation (FDA specifically named the counties of Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura).
It’s no surprise that this situation is generating questions about where leafy greens are grown and harvested at different times of the year. We thought we’d take a few minutes to explain how consumers can use a harvest date and location to know their romaine is not involved in the outbreak and is safe to eat.
Romaine Harvest Locations
The map above illustrates the Top 10 counties in California where leafy greens are grown throughout the year. In California, Romaine is currently being harvested in the two southernmost counties (Imperial and Riverside/Coachella). FDA has determined romaine grown in these areas is not involved in the outbreak. Along the Central Coast, most growing regions do not harvest romaine in the winter months. However, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties produce year-round because they have mild winter climates. These counties would normally be harvesting and shipping romaine at this time of year, once cleared from FDA’s investigation they will resume romaine harvest and shipment.
It should be noted that romaine is also grown in other parts of North America and is currently being harvested in Arizona, Florida and Mexico. Arizona is the “winter lettuce capital of the United States” and also has its own LGMA food safety program that operates much in the same manner as the California program. According to the USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture, California and Arizona produce over 90% of the nation’s lettuce.
Romaine Harvest Dates
Each year in the fall, leafy greens production in California shifts from north to south. Beginning sometime in mid-October, shipments of leafy greens from central California drop sharply and shipments from southern California and Arizona begin to build. This time is what we call the “transition” period. Illnesses associated with the current outbreak occurred primarily in October when the desert region was not yet harvesting leafy greens – so this region could not have been a part of the outbreak.
In the long-term, no one is more committed to seeking an end to this outbreak and regaining consumer trust than leafy greens farmers in California and Arizona. The efforts of the LGMA, other produce industry associations and the entire leafy greens community are focused on learning what may have been the cause of this outbreak and how to prevent future outbreaks. We are continuing to work cooperatively with FDA and CDC. We are very hopeful for a quick end to this outbreak and that the answers we all want as to how this outbreak happened will be available soon.
The labels now being applied to romaine lettuce should give consumers the assurances they need to feel confident in purchasing romaine.