How Farmers Markets Can Respond to the Romaine Lettuce Scare

      Posted On: December 5, 2018

by Ben Feldman, FMC Policy Director |

Chris French of French Farms poses with freshly picked lettuce from his Florida Farm.

Just prior to Thanksgiving, the CDC and FDA took the unusual step of warning shoppers to avoid all romaine lettuce, stating “Consumers who have any type of romaine lettuce in their home should not eat it and should throw it away.” The advice came as a response to an outbreak of E. Coli that has sickened 43 people in 12 different states.

The agencies have since lifted their blanket warning to consumers to sidestep romaine lettuce entirely and are now advising the following:

  • Distributors and retailers should label romaine lettuce with the date and location of harvest.
  • Consumers should look for date and location labels and avoid romaine lettuce that does not have this information.

The agencies have also specified that it has narrowed the source of the outbreak to 6 california counties: Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Ventura and that the last illness onset occurred October 31, 2018.

So, what does this mean for farmers markets?

While the CDC/FDA labeling advisory is not mandatory, it is our recommendation that farmers selling at farmers markets offer this information through signs or labels, given the CDC/FDA advisory to consumers to avoid romaine lettuce without such labels.

Farmers market shoppers may also have additional questions about food safety at farmers markets. The wide geography and difficulty in tracing of this latest outbreak to its source demonstrates the challenges of the commercial supply chain as it relates to food borne illness, as well as highlights the health benefits of purchasing locally produced food. Direct sales made at farmers markets reduces the risk of acquiring a food borne illness in two notable ways:

  1. Fewer steps means fewer opportunities for error. The longer the supply chain, the more people and equipment come in contact with the food as it makes its way to consumers. Each additional step along the way increases the chances for contamination.
  2. Farmer to consumer direct sales provide excellent traceability. Not only do more steps between farmer and consumer increase the chance for contamination, they also complicate the process of tracing a disease outbreak to its source. According to scientists, “difficulties in finding the sources of contamination behind food poisoning cases are inevitable due to the increasing complexity of a global food traffic network.” By contrast, sales at farmers markets involve just two steps in the supply chain, which provides simple and easy traceability.