The recent romaine lettuce scare could cost tens of millions of dollars nationwide, and with the federal government unable so far to identify a specific farm or producer of lettuce tainted with the E. coli bacterium, local supermarkets may have to pick up part if not all of the tab for their losses.
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues a recall notice for a product to be returned, it has identified the source of the contamination. Supermarkets can get credit for purchases from their distributors, and the distributors in turn can get credit from the producer that sold the unsafe products, experts say.
But the Nov. 20 notice from the Centers for Disease Control was not a recall, but an advisory for restaurants, supermarkets and other sellers of any romaine lettuce or romaine mixes to voluntarily remove the product from their shelves. In that case, it is not clear whether the product in every store is tainted, and some good lettuce may be thrown away.
“The losses could be in the tens of millions of dollars,” said Trevor Suslow, vice president of food safety at the Produce Marketing Association based in Newark, Delaware. “The specific sources of the E. coli haven’t been identified yet, so everyone will participate in significant losses.”
Consumers also will feel the pinch. Until safe romaine lettuce can be restocked, tight supplies of iceberg and other types of lettuce may triple their cost to consumers, according to the Associated Grocers of New England, which represents 600 stores across the region.
“Consumers will see an impact on the shelf,” said Peter Vail, vice president of merchandising and procurement for Associated Grocers, which is based in Pembroke, New Hampshire. “We’re seeing prices for iceberg lettuce and salad kits triple in the last two days because of limited supply and strong demand.”
Suslow said in a case of not knowing the precise source of the unsafe product, distributors and stores often negotiate deals to lessen the burden on the supermarket.
Romaine consumption has grown dramatically over the last 15 years, Suslow said.
“It’s one of the dominant components of leafy greens servings,” he said.
Eric Blom, a spokesperson for Hannaford, based in Scarborough, said the advisory affected a substantial amount of product that the supermarket chain will dispose of in compost or biodigestion. Hannaford has 63 supermarkets in Maine.
Blom declined to specify what percentage of the store’s green produce is romaine lettuce, nor the cost of having to pull the product off store shelves just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.
“The cost still needs to be looked at. It’s not yet determined,” he said.
Blom said the store is not currently selling romaine lettuce, but will do so again when the product is cleared by federal authorities to be safe from certain growing areas.
Shaw’s, which has 21 stores in Maine, also removed all products containing romaine lettuce from its shelves, advising customers who bought the products to discard them or return them for a full refund.
“We are also monitoring the CDC and FDA guidance,” said spokesperson Teresa Edington. She declined to comment on the cost to the store of pulling the lettuce from the shelves.
On Monday, federal health officials said only romaine lettuce from certain parts of California is unsafe to eat, and romaine lettuce entering the market will now be labeled to give consumers information about when and where it was harvested.
The CDC and FDA still are trying to trace the source of the outbreak.
A previous recall of romaine lettuce in May 2018 traced to Yuma, California, led to a $69 million drop in lettuce sales in the second quarter of this year, according to Produce Retailer.
But the inability to sell romaine lettuce wasn’t the only loss to supermarkets and restaurants in Maine and elsewhere.
Even though the advisory, which was very general, was voluntary, everyone who heard about it complied to show their customers they value their safety, said Suslow of the Produce Marketing Association.
The cost to a typical supermarket, he said, includes lost sales, the labor cost to pull the product off of the shelf, the effort and cost to replace it with alternative products for consumers, the cost of disposal, the extra hours or part-time help to answer phone calls from concerned customers and finally restocking romaine lettuce deemed safe and containing new labeling requested by the FDA and CDC.
And then there’s the extra cost of wary consumers continuing to not buy the product and the potential spoilage that results.
“Farms also had to stop producing. Some sent crews home of a couple hundred people easily,” Suslow said. “So that’s thousands of individual farm workers and operations staff who didn’t have income or medical coverage.”
In a recall, much of the cost is born by the farm or producer where the tainted produce was found by authorities to have originated.
Erin Lynch, director of operations at Rosemont Market & Bakery, which will add a sixth Maine store in January, said she’s hoping the advisory will turn into a recall in time for Rosemont to recoup money from its distributor.
Rosemont sells romaine lettuce hearts, but it is not a core of the store’s green leafy produce sales.
“It could affect four cases, so we could lose about $100,” she said. “We’re going to hang onto them a bit longer to see if the supplier recalls them. We’re not sure where our romaine lettuce comes from.”
If the lettuce is from a producer identified as selling tainted product, Rosemont could get a credit for its purchases from its distributor.
“But if our romaine is in the clear [safe], we’ll have to eat the cost,” she said.
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