Romaine Lettuce Advisory Leads To Tons Of Waste And New Labels

Dec 6, 2018

As the Food and Drug Administration continues investigating the E.coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from California, literally tons of lettuce are ending up in landfills. Now, some agriculture companies are using a voluntary labeling system to help consumers stay informed and hopefully avoid food waste in the future.

At the Monterey Regional landfill in Monterey County, compactors with spiky wheels help bury a pungent and colorful pile of trash. Recently, there has been a lot of romaine in that pile.

The landfill is close to Salinas Valley agriculture fields. The Salinas Valley is where a majority of the nation’s lettuce is grown. Nearby farms have been dropping off truckloads of romaine here.

Angela Goebel is the Public Education and Outreach Specialist at the Monterey Regional Waste Management District.

“I've been flabbergasted by the amount of romaine that's been coming in and I can only imagine it's the tip of the iceberg,” says Goebel.

It’s estimated the other active landfill in Monterey County (the Johnson Canyon Landfill east of Gonzales) received 260 tons of romaine lettuce last week. Here at the Monterey Regional landfill, about 110 tons so far.

Goebel says all of the lettuce coming in has been packaged. So, it has to go to the landfill. That's because the Monterey Regional Waste Management District doesn't have the equipment to de-package the lettuce from all of the plastic and cardboard, which can't be composted. The Waste Management District does have a compost facility and composts byproducts from ag fields routinely, but those byproducts aren't packaged.  

“I want to go and pull apart the packaging myself so it can be composted. It's just really difficult to see anything wasted that way. I think about all that it took to grow it. It took seeds and soil, compost and fertilizer. It took water, which is so precious in our state with the continuous droughts. It took human hands to tend to it and pick it,” Goebel says.

It has been just over two weeks since the FDA announced an E.coli outbreak linked to romaine. People got sick throughout October. That’s when the lettuce growing season is wrapping up in California and about to transition to warmer areas, like Arizona.

The FDA issued an initial advisory to throw out all romaine, impacting the entire industry, including farms that were just beginning to harvest.  

Dr. Jennifer McEntire is Vice President of Food Safety and Technology at United Fresh Produce Association. It’s a national trade association representing the fresh fruit and vegetable industry. She says the broad advisory set an idea into motion.

“We noted that there were major production areas that couldn't have been involved with the outbreak. But the FDA was concerned that consumers couldn't distinguish product from one area versus another,” McEntire says.

Enter - a new labeling system for romaine. Now that romaine products are reappearing in stores and restaurants, consumers can look for labels that show the harvest location and date. Their purpose is to help consumers stay informed about where their lettuce is coming from. The FDA’s current advisory is to not eat romaine grown in central and northern California.

The new labeling is voluntary. Ocean Mist Farms based in Castroville, California is embracing it. The company is known for their artichokes, but grows other vegetables, including romaine.

Ocean Mist Farms President and CEO Joe Pezzini says they’re going with a sticker label for now. One they can print in the field and stick on bags.

“Ultimately, some of that information will be printed on the bag. But in the short term, just to get product moving again, it was easier to print a label and then put the sticker on the bag,” says Pezzini.

Pezzini hopes the new labels could help prevent broad advisories that lead to a lot of unnecessary waste.

“Hopefully they'll understand where these contaminations are occurring and be able to do something about them. But that ultimately will eliminate throwing all product away like we did in this case,” Pezzini says.

The leafy greens industry is in the process of creating a task force to look into the possibility of long-term labeling.

This is the second E.coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce this year. The FDA traced the first outbreak to Yuma, Arizona. That outbreak sickened 210 people in the U.S. and caused five deaths. This second outbreak linked to romaine from central and northern California has sickened 43 people in the U.S. and 24 people in Canada.