Total Recoil

Growers in Monterey County are scrambling to respond after Canadian food safety officials placed restrictions on the import of romaine lettuce from the Salinas Valley due to past E. coli outbreaks.

In an unprecedented move that shocked local growers and U.S. government officials, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency declared new trade standards for romaine and mixed salads containing romaine beginning on Oct. 7 through the end of the year.

Romaine lettuce is banned from entering Canada if it came from the counties of Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Santa Clara, unless the romaine shipments from these areas are specifically tested for E. coli by a certified laboratory. Growers say this would be costly and impractical given current testing capacity.

“We are trying to get to the bottom of this decision to put up additional restrictions right at the height of the season,” says Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. “It caught us all by surprise. The restrictions are not justified by science and don’t take into account the steps we have taken to further prevent any contamination.”

Groot says that he and other industry representatives have been in touch with federal officials from the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

“[The federal representatives] are negotiating with Canada,” Groot says. “They sent a proposal and we’re waiting for a response.”

U.S. Rep Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, released a statement right after the Canadian announcement, calling it an “unwelcome surprise” that is not based on sound science.

“As the representative of the ‘Salad Bowl of the World,’ I will continue to do everything I can to fight these harmful requirements and ensure that safe Salinas Valley romaine has fair access to the Canadian market,” he said.

It is too early to quantify impacts but they will be substantial, according to Groot. “We can look from a historical perspective and Canada is one of our most important trading partners,” he says.

The annual crop report for Monterey County shows that local growers sold more produce by volume to Canada than any other country over the past two years. At 110 million pounds, lettuce, which includes romaine and other varietals, was the top agricultural export in 2019. In dollar terms, romaine was near the top among all crops, bringing in $695 million in revenue.

The Canadians said that the decision was prompted by investigations that tied a series of outbreaks to the Salinas Valley.

“From 2016 to 2019, romaine lettuce from California was linked to outbreaks of E. coli illnesses in the USA and Canada,” the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in a statement. “To mitigate risk in the event of another outbreak this fall, the CFIA is implementing these temporary import measures aimed at preventing contaminated food from entering the marketplace.”

The most recent outbreak took place last fall and was traced to packaged salads shipped throughout the U.S. and Canada. Dozens of people were hospitalized, leading the USDA to put out a food safety advisory.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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(2) comments

Greg Janusz

I totally agree with Mr. Sailor that California needs to. Restructure its AG treatment of all of the produce grown this state. Think about Salinas known as the Salad Bowl of America with Poisonous produce that kills people.... Somebody needs to get off their duff and do the job !!!! It’s embarrassing to those of us that care about humanity, to be associated with this situation. Clean Up Your Act.... We deserve much better!!!!!

Sinbad Sailor

Big Ag and CDPH have to do better to protect public health and safety. It's that simple. No one can blame the Canadian government for looking out for the best interests of their citizens. I wish our state government would do the same.

There's been a history of e-coli [bacteria] and cyclospora [ parasite] infections from contaminated SV Ag produce. We've never been given the results of investigations. Was it due to contaminated recycle irrigation water or fertilizer biosolids or contaminated packaging or handling? People have been hospitalized because of these contaminations which is a serious medical matter confirmed by clinical lab testing.

With all due respect to Congressman Panetta, "sound science" has proven that SV contaminated produce sickened consumers on multiple occasions. The cause of these contaminations needs to be eliminated going forward.

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