Romaine lettuce sales are down more than $71 million so far this year as the industry has been pummelled with food-poisoning outbreaks — and things are about to get worse

Ann TaylorRomaine lettuce has been pulled from Food Lion shelves in Durham, North Carolina.
  • Romaine lettuce sales are down by more than $US71 million so far in 2018, according to Nielsen data.
  • In April, the FDA linked romaine lettuce to an E. coli outbreak that left five people dead and sickened at least 210.
  • The E. coli outbreak sent romaine lettuce sales plummeting more than 40% in the weeks after the CDC told people to throw away all types of romaine.
  • On Tuesday, the CDC announced there is a new E. coli outbreak linked to romaine – and sales are set to drop once again as people toss their lettuce leading up to Thanksgiving Day.

Romaine lettuce has had a horrific 2018.

In April, the FDA revealed that romaine lettuce harvested in the Yuma, Arizona, region was contaminated with E. coli, in an outbreak that left five people dead and sickened at least 210. On Tuesday, the CDC announced there is a new E. coli outbreak linked to romaine, and that people, restaurants, and grocery stores needed to throw out any romaine they had purchased.


Read more:
The CDC tells people to stop eating romaine lettuce – again – after another E. coli outbreak sickens at least 32 people in 11 states

The first outbreak already decimated romaine sales earlier this year. The FDA first revealed that romaine had been linked to an E. coli outbreak on April 10, and it soon after advised people across the United States to stop consuming romaine lettuce in all forms.

Romaine lettuce sales plummeted by 44.9% in the week ending on April 28 compared to the same period a year before, according to Nielsen data.

For the four weeks ending on May 19, sales were down 41.4% compared to the same period in 2017. That represents a drop of more than $US16 million in sales within Nielsen-tracked channels.

Washing romaine lettuce e coliShutterstock/Pj Aun

Romaine sales had already gotten off to a slow start in 2018, according to Nielsen data. In January, Consumer Reports was advising shoppers to avoid the lettuce, due to another E. coli outbreak that experts say is likely a precursor to the current outbreak, as the bacteria shares a genetic footprint.

All in all, romaine lettuce sales dropped by more than 15% in the first 40 weeks of 2018, a period ending on November 3, compared to the same period in 2017. That accounts for more than $US71 million in lost sales in Nielsen-tracked channels.

If the earlier outbreak is the guide, things are only going to get worse. It’s likely that sales will undergo another drop of more than 40% this week with the CDC advising against buying any type of romaine lettuce. Restaurants and grocery stores have already thrown out their romaine lettuce. This Thanksgiving Day, salads across the country will be romaine-free.

However, even when romaine is declared safe again, sales are unlikely to immediately recover. The CDC declared romaine lettuce safe to eat in mid-May. However, romaine sales never turned positive in 2018 following the April outbreak, with sales compared to the same period from 2017 remaining in the red week after week. The week after the CDC announced romaine was safe to eat again, sales were down 27.8%.

Despite the rough year, Bill Marler, an attorney who specialises in food poisoning cases, says there’s no clear reason why romaine has been at the center of two major E. coli outbreaks.

“I think it’s just, romaine’s getting a bad draw,” Marler said. “It could have just as easily happened to other kinds of lettuce or other types of leafy greens, such as spinach.”

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