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The salad situation

Grocers still picking up the pieces in the wake of last year’s E. coli scare

romaine lettuce leaves

The threat of contaminated romaine may be behind us, but grocers are still grappling with the aftermath of last year’s E. coli outbreaks, which affected lettuce supplies to several provinces and U.S. states.

“The challenges with this [outbreak] is that it lasted for 12 months with one alert after another and that builds memory,” says Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy, and senior director of the Agrifood Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “We saw what happened when people started to walk away from spinach back in 2006 and it has never really recovered.”

Sales in alternatives to romaine (such as kale, spinach, and red and green leaf lettuce) went up during last year’s romaine outbreak, notes Sam Corea, vice-president, retail at Buy-Low Foods, but suppliers couldn’t keep up with demand. Without an official recall, he says the wholesalers and independents who pulled product off shelves were never able to recoup their losses. “The financial impact to the entire supply chain was quite significant,” he says, citing that both wholesale and retail saw a 17% decline in total leaf lettuce.

At Pusateri’s in Toronto, five lines of ready-to-eat salads containing romaine were removed from shelves during the outbreak, resulting in an estimated 80% loss in romaine sales, says Dominic Fortuna, the retailer’s vice-president, quality assurance. “We substituted with spinach and kale options but consumers didn’t gravitate to these new lines at all,” he says. “The [original] lines are back now but people still ask questions.”

Fortuna says the whole situation was frustrating because government couldn’t pinpoint the source of contamination. While the United States had issued a voluntary recall that affected the whole country, Canada’s advisory was limited to only a few provinces. “Suppliers were telling us their products weren’t affected, but we had to protect the public and pull them anyway,” he says. “It was confusing and created a lot of problems.”

Jeff Hall, food safety specialist at the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, says last year’s events have emphasized just how integrated the U.S. and Canadian supply chains are. Going forward, he says bringing industry into the loop sooner is critical to deal with these kinds of ripple effects. “Not only does the industry need to be in communication with government, but on the flipside, the government needs to include us earlier in the process when they start to see issues so we can help.”

In spite of consumer concern, Hall believes the market should recover fairly quickly. “Retailers just have to be open and honest, and know where their products come from so they can share that information with consumers,” he says.

Right from the get-go, Longo’s made a point to communicate the safety of its Arizona-grown lettuce to customers, both in-store at point of sale and via email. “I truly feel that being in front of it and communicating at the earliest moment possible built trust in our guests,” says Mimmo Franzone, Longo’s director of produce and floral. “Sales in romaine and romaine hearts have seen year-over-year increases over the last quarter.”

Similarly, once Buy-Low Foods had an adequate supply of Canadian living romaine and Arizona produce, Corea says all stores were supplied with signage educating shoppers about the steps taken to protect their health and safety—this included identifying the growing region of all produce.

“We are not hearing any ongoing concerns from customers and believe they are satisfied that the food and safety measures we and the industry have taken are working,” says Corea. In fact, the retailer notes a silver lining with the continued growth in hot house grown living butter and romaine lettuces.

For those retailers still struggling, Charlebois suggests ongoing promotions, as well as displaying produce as prominently as possible. “Winter may be a lost cause but spring is coming, and once the domestic growing cycle kicks in, retailers have a new message with locally grown foods, too.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s March/April 2019 issue.

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