Why consumers are confused by the romaine lettuce 2019 recall
Do you remember playing the whisper game when you were in grade school? If not, here's a quick review: the teacher would have the kids sit in a circle and she would whisper a secret in the ear of the student to her right or left. Then she would have that student whisper the secret into the next student's ear and so on until the secret came back "full circle". Usually it involved giggling and laughing and sometimes a kid would whisper to another so loud that we could hear what they said. Finally, the secret would be to the last student in the circle and he or she would whisper to the teacher what they heard from the person next to them. Enter, the hysterical result of the original secret was NOTHING like the end secret.
That is exactly what I see in the food industry regarding the November 2019 romaine lettuce recall. It's a communication breakdown. Except, instead of laughing, most people are walking away scratching their heads wondering if their romaine lettuce is tainted with E. Coli 0157:H7 (which they do not even know what those last digits mean)..... Some opt for the "Better safe than sorry" method and just quit buying it or throw their lettuce out quietly. Others massively panic and share it on their social media pages to make sure their loved ones remain free of E Coli. I admit, I did this on all Safe Food En Route's outlets and my own personal Facebook page as well last year as the harvest location was not well-known or well-labeled and therefore, we were being cautious. And as you know, some are those that were affected by the outbreak and are now battling for their life. Check the latest information on this CDC website.
If you have read to this point, I hope you stay with me. Mostly, I believe my clients and colleagues are reading this blog, so I think I can take some liberty to speak more candidly to the food industry. If you are not in the food industry, this blog still might educate you a little on labeling, communication breakdowns and why you might feel confused by it.
My muse for this story was the the 2 encounters I had yesterday with non-industry people about the romaine lettuce situation.
1. A Facebook friend posted a panic type post telling all their friends to throw all romaine lettuce in any form away and had this CNN article attached. As a food safety expert and well in tune with this particular recall, I double checked the article, then tried to explain that the product that was affected was from Salinas and that there are still viable sources of romaine lettuce that are not part of this particular recall, such as Yuma, AZ and Florida. My friend tried to correct me that this was a nationwide recall and that California was not the only affected state. The conversation eventually moved to messenger and he provided me with this second article published by the CDC. I realized then that my friend did not understand the supply chain and I was doing a terrible job explaining it. I kept using the term "Sourced" instead of "Harvested" or "Grown". Eventually he said better safe than sorry and quit engaging with me, so I don't think I ever had the chance to fully convince him that not all romaine lettuce is unsafe. Oh well, I would prefer that he is conservative with his consumption, but I wish it would've been easier to explain to him.
2. A family member texted me saying she bought romaine lettuce from Costco. She said the label said Product of Mexico, but she also noticed tiny writing saying Salinas. She wanted my opinion, so I told her without seeing the label that if it says Salinas, it's trash. Then she sent me a picture of it and I realized I was wrong! TWICE!!!!
In the first picture, you see that the label clearly says Product of Mexico. (Non-industry people, this means that it was grown and harvested in Mexico). The 2nd picture is zoomed in on the bottom left corner where it says The Nunes Company, Inc. Salinas CA 93901 Certified Organic by CCOF.
At first glance, I thought that the Salinas location was actually the organic certifying body, CCOF. (Non-industry people, that means that the company is audited by this organization to ensure that they are following acceptable organic practices from farm practices to fertilizer and pesticide applications, etc.). But I just looked again while writing this blog and realized that CCOF is actually separate from The Nunes Company, Inc. The Nunes Company, Inc., according to a quick Google search is a company founded in 1976 who's website is foxy.com and their parent company is Taylor Farms. So what we're really seeing is that Taylor Farms' subsidiary, The Nunes Company Inc., located in Salinas, CA, procured their romaine lettuce hearts from Mexico.
SERIOUSLY - I can't understand why consumers are confused....
On top of all this, Frank Yiannas, formerly Walmart's Vice President of Food Safety and Regulatory, now FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, is being quoted in several articles, including this one, as saying, "Romaine lettuce may be voluntarily labeled with a harvest region," "If romaine lettuce has "Salinas' on the label in any form [whether alone or with the name of another location] do not eat it. Throw it away or return it to the place of purchase."
So he is saying throwing it away if it says Salinas in any form.... But this product is actually from Mexico!!!! And thus the whisper game is ending it's loop.
We must do better.......
Labels are confusing enough for the consumer on the nutrition fact panels and claims. These brand logos are just as confusing.
Personally, I feel it is very confusing to voluntarily label the location the product was grown and harvested from and then on the Principal Display Panel (non-industry people, that's the front of the label), it is also listed the organic certifying body next to the name of the company. At minimum, I think we can agree that this is confusing to the consumer and can send mixed messages. And lest not forget my encounter with my friend that thought the "nationwide" outbreak meant that ALL romaine lettuce should be thrown out. Frank Yiannas does say if it is affiliated with Salinas, throw it away, but do you think my family member should throw this away? I told her to go ahead and eat it. I am trusting that the Product of Mexico label means it is sourced from Mexico and that it is being distributed by The Nunes Company.
What say you? Please comment below or email your thoughts!
For more of my thoughts on romaine lettuce, check out my response to 2018's Romaine lettuce outbreak: Can We Eat Romaine Lettuce Yet?
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