The Financial Impact of the Romaine Lettuce E. Coli Outbreak Isn’t Over

May 30, 2018, 7:48 PM UTC

It is “unlikely” that any romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona — the origin of E. coli contaminated greens — remain on grocery store shelves, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the Food and Drug Administration. However, consumers, farmers and retailers are still feeling the impact.

Beyond causing more than 150 people to become sick, the E. coli outbreak caused huge losses to growers, a drop in sales for retailers, and disrupted supply chains as restaurants scrambled to find romaine lettuce alternatives — and the impact could linger, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

“During the week of April 14 (the week the news broke), romaine dollar sales fell 20%, which pushed total lettuce performance down by double digits: iceberg lettuce dollar sales were down 19%; red leaf lettuce dollar sales fell 16%; and endive dollar sales dipped 17%,” according to a Nielsen report on National Salad Month. In May, Romaine sales fell nearly 45%, according to the WSJ, iceberg fell 22%, and red leaf fell 17%. Prices for whole heads of romaine lettuce were down 60%.

For romaine lettuce growers it meant abandoning the popular green, or shifting production out of Arizona and into other areas like California. “Trucks all across the country were dumping romaine,” Drew McDonald, vice president of quality and food safety at Taylor Farms, told the WSJ.

Retailers cleared romaine lettuce off shelves and are continuing to reassure and educate customers about the origin of their lettuce.

“It’s [cost] thousands and thousands of dollars, it could even run into the millions,” Kroger Co.’s vice president of corporate food technology and regulatory compliance, Howard Popoola, told WSJ.

Restaurants, too, have had to switch gears, change menus, and find new suppliers for different lettuce.

Selling tainted food can also be costly for retailers and restaurants. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study published in Public Health Reports in April of this year estimated that depending on the severity of the outbreak, a single foodborne illness incident can cost a fast food restaurant between $4,000 (no loss of revenue, fines or legal fees) to $1.9 million (fines, revenue lost, legal fees).

Restaurants and retailers that were hit by lawsuits related to the romaine lettuce-related E. coli outbreak include Panera Bread, and Walmart’s Sam’s Club division Taylor Farms.

“Promptly after the advisory was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on April 13, 2018, we removed all romaine originating from the Yuma growing region from our cafes, and began looking for a new source,” Panera said on its website, noting that it now sources its romaine lettuce from California.

The last harvest date of Yuma-grown romaine lettuce was April 16, and due to its 21-day shelf life, the FDA estimates that it is not likely to be on shelves or in restaurants. The E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce killed one person, sent 75 people to the hospital, and made 172 people across across 30 states ill.