- - Thursday, May 31, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Green is good. It’s the favorite color of the environmentalists, and everything green is the craze of the politically correct. Many a clever shopkeeper, taxicab operator and entrepreneur has set out to “go green,” joining the craze with little more than a brush and a can of paint. If green is good, it nevertheless needs a little marketing genius.

Greens are great, too, unless they’re laced with deadly e.coli, which has shaken the faith of healthy eaters in romaine, America’s favorite salad green. Government health officials say the romaine in supermarkets now is safe, and growers in Arizona have left hundreds of acres of romaine rotting in the field as grocers and chefs have moved on to other greens. This has been good news for the modest iceberg, which usually dresses the lowly sandwich, but is sneered at by foodies as beneath a cultivated taste.

Americans eat a lot of lettuce. Lettuce was once even a common synonym for money. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American eats 33 pounds of lettuce a year, and for many years iceberg was the most popular of greens. Though it became a brief sensation in France, the shrine of all things edible for chefs and foodies, iceberg fell out of favor in the United States, replaced by romaine and so-called “leaf lettuce.”

Though sometimes disdained by meat eaters, the four most common lettuces — green leaf, romaine, butterhead and iceberg — are sources of protein and dietary fiber, and good sources of vitamins, particularly vitamins A and K. The outbreak of e.coli, which sickened hundreds of consumers and killed one, devastated the market for romaine in early spring and the healthy and hungry turned to other varieties in search of something crunchy, crispy, spicy and spiky.

These varieties — green leaf, red leaf, arugula, Napa cabbage, bibb, butter, Boston, frisee, and escarole, to name a few — were once all but unknown to the masses, until chefs and foodies began their search for the exotic, the strange and the occasionally outlandish.

“We have lots of exotic lettuce in Yazoo City,” the late Jerry Clower, a country comedian at the Grand Ole Opry, once boasted. “It grows along the Illinois Central railroad right-of-way. We call ‘em weeds.”

But six weeks after the outbreak of e.coli in romaine grown in the fields around Yuma, Ariz., the market for romaine has cratered and Watsonville, Calif., has replaced, at least temporarily, Yuma as Romaine Central. “It has cost thousands and thousands of dollars,” Howard Popoola, a vice president of Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, tells The Wall Street Journal. “It could even be in the millions.” That’s hardly a laughing matter.

The outbreak has been traced to the Yuma area, though so far investigators have not found the precise source of the tainted romaine. Nevertheless, investigators of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are confident that no tainted romaine is left on grocery shelves, and growers and sellers say the lettuce market won’t recover for months.

Other leafy greens have suffered as well, as consumers remain wary of lettuce. Only Bugs Bunny and his friends, the traditional scourge of greens growers, appear not to have been affected by fear of the tainted greens.

Technical advances have made it easier to identify the origins of outbreaks of illnesses traced to food. “Our tools and our regulatory oversight have gotten more effective and more vigilant,” Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, tells the Journal.

The effects of such outbreaks can be substantial for growers. The production of lettuce is a big business, valued at $3.6 billion last year, the leading vegetable crop by value. When sales of romaine drop by 45 percent, as it did comparing this year over last, the effects on farm income are substantial. One family farm in Modesto, Calif., has lost $120,000 already, having planted enough romaine to fill 20,000 cases this year.

Some growers compare the romaine outbreak to an outbreak of e.coli in spinach that killed three persons, sickened 200, and cost growers $350 million. “We never really got our footing back after that,” one large California lettuce grower recalls. Such outbreaks usually reduce demand and the effect is often long-lasting.

The taste of lettuce is subtle, which makes it friendly to other vegetables. This in turn makes it popular with chefs and discerning diners who spend billions of dollars on treats for their tummies. And a billion dollars is a lot of lettuce.

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