Romaine lettuce is on its way back to grocery stores.
About a week ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to stay away from romaine lettuce after an outbreak of E. coli was linked to the leafy vegetable. The outbreak caused 43 people to become sick in 12 states and 22 people in Canada.
As part of its investigation, the FDA determined the location of the outbreak to the lettuce growing areas of the Central Coast of California. The region supplies a bulk of the romaine during the summer season. And since that season is over and no new cases of E. coli have been reported, federal health officials are lifting their do-not-eat-romaine recommendation, with a few qualifiers.
Under a first-of-its-kind voluntary agreement, the FDA said romaine growers and shippers can resume supplying retailers and the food industry as long as they identify where the produce was grown and when it was harvested.
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The key factors are where and when. The FDA and industry representatives want consumers to know that lettuce harvested from the winter growing lettuce regions have not been linked to the recent outbreak of E. coli. Those regions include the Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley and the desert regions of Arizona and Yuma as well as Florida and Mexico.
The FDA also includes hydroponic and greenhouse-grown romaine lettuce.
What consumers need to look for are labels or signs in the grocery store showing that the lettuce was picked after Nov. 21 and is coming from an area other than the Central Coast. The FDA issued its recommendation to pull romaine out of the market Nov. 20.
If the lettuce package or box does not have the voluntary label, the FDA recommends you should not eat it.
Local lettuce grower Tim Baloian welcomes the new voluntary label recommendation.
“This allows us to get back into the market,” Baloian said. “We started up again as soon as we heard.”
Baloian, chief executive officer of Baloian Farms, a leading Valley produce company, said this is the first time he has seen a voluntary labeling program used to identify a specific growing region and time of harvest.
Baloian Farms resumed harvesting in the Coachella Valley on Monday and will be shipping the product across the country soon, he said.
Prior to the new voluntary program, Baloian was at risk of tossing nearly 1,300 boxes of romaine lettuce that was harvested from a field in Fresno. He is working on donating it to a local food bank.
A spokeswoman for United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C. said consumers can expect to see signs in grocery stores identifying where the lettuce is coming from. And if you don’t see it, ask.
“This has been very frustrating for the industry,” said Mary Coppola, spokesman for United Fresh Produce Association.
“Not only to hear that consumers are getting sick, but that producers had to pull out their product two days before Thanksgiving. And maybe the labeling may become a long-term solution to allow FDA to better identify where a product is coming from and not do a blanket warning.”