The Fall of the Romaine Empire

Written by Matt Harrison
Posted November 27, 2018 at 6:29PM

Been craving a Caesar salad or a Chipotle burrito bowl? Are you dying to scratch that itch but you'd rather not be, well, poisoned?

We've all heard about the outbreaks of E. coli in imported heads of romaine lettuce. This most recent development is toppling what used to be the American vegetable market's predominant cash crop. The lettuce industry was valued at an estimated $3.6 billion in 2017. But recent months have spelled disaster for wholesalers, grocers, and farmers across the States. The price of lettuce has dropped by almost 60% since last April. But individuals inside the lettuce market are saying this has been a long time coming.

But before we get into the history of poisoned lettuce in the U.S., let's talk about the current outbreak...

The poisoned lettuce has been traced back to the arid desert region of Yuma, Arizona. There had to have been some sort of contaminant in the thousands of acres of the Yuma lettuce farm — one that resulted in the Escherichia coli O157:H7 strain. This strain of E. coli produces the Shiga toxin, which is most commonly found in cases of dysentery. This particular strain of E. coli is quite virulent. So, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that you toss out any romaine lettuce purchased in recent weeks, remove anything that's come in close contact with the lettuce, and sanitize your vegetable drawer.

So far, this outbreak hasn't resulted in any fatalities. But there have been 32 people infected in the U.S. and 18 cases in Canada.

Symptoms of the contact with the Shiga toxin include bloody diarrhea, painful stomach cramps, and vomiting. But what the CDC is really concerned about is that the Shiga toxin often leads to a condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure. The CDC states that the symptoms of HUS include...

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Fever.
  • Pale skin.
  • Fatigue and irritability.
  • Small, unexplained bruises.
  • A decrease in urination.
  • Bleeding from the nose or mouth.

We've been fortunate that there haven't been any fatal cases in the November outbreak. But like I mentioned earlier, this drop in romaine sales isn't new. In fact, that 60% drop has been occurring since the E. coli outbreak last April, when there were 84 cases across 16 states.

But growers will point to an earlier 2006 outbreak of E. coli in spinach as the herald of the end times for the lettuce industry. It involved a particularly nasty strain that led to 200 cases of E. coli and three deaths. It also led to an estimated $350 million in losses for the vegetable industry due to what farmers refer to as "consumer confusion."

Whenever Americans hear that a particular type of lettuce or spinach has been recalled, they avoid all leafy greens to ensure they don't get poisoned. This pattern began after the 2006 outbreak. And this month alone, overall lettuce sales are down by 27%.

The result? Farmers are leaving acres of lettuce and spinach to rot rather than incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue on vegetables that grocery store shoppers can't trust.

No matter what health craze sweeps the country, we've always been a nation that has trouble eating vegetables. And now, you want to tell average Americans that the salad they're begrudgingly purchasing might be poisoned? The future of our nation's leafy greens looks dire...

Invest well,

Matt Harrison
Contributing Editor, Park Avenue Digest

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