Romaine and Research Reports Rock the Thanksgiving Holiday
During the week of Thanksgiving, two news stories caught my attention. First, just days before Thanksgiving, the CDC announced that no one in the United States or Canada should eat romaine lettuce. Since early October, the CDC had identified 43 cases of food-borne illness in 12 states that they linked to consumption of romaine. Canada’s national public health agency had identified 24 related cases. It would be nearly a week before the CDC would be able to trace the outbreak to likely having come from somewhere within six counties of coastal central California.
Today, the CDC has updated its advisory with this specific warning: “Romaine lettuce products will be labeled with a harvest location by region. It may take some time before these labels are available. If the romaine lettuce is not labeled with a harvest growing region, do not buy, serve, sell, or eat it.” (Emphasis added.) The implication here is that it clearly is possible to track romaine and other farm products but the choice had been made to not implement such a system. Such a system has already been developed by IBM, and Walmart is reportedly in the process of implementing it throughout their distribution system.
The second news story, which hit the day after Thanksgiving, reported on the release of a major new federal study of the threat of climate change to US communities and our national economy. The projected impact on agriculture is sobering: “Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the United States. Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability.” The report states that there are strategies that can help farmers to adapt, but warns “these strategies have limits under severe climate change impacts.”
In both of these cases, there are solutions available that can either mitigate the impacts of the problem or begin to address the underlying causes of the problem. What is lacking is a sense of urgency and a willingness to make the investments necessary to create change. If it takes 67 illnesses to create the public will to address traceability of romaine, what number of illnesses will it take to prompt a response to the threats of climate change to our food system? Perhaps more importantly, when will we begin to trust scientific evidence of the impacts of climate change the same way we trust in the CDC to identify and address food safety threats?
While the climate change report focuses on the threats to our agricultural system, it is important to also recognize that agriculture can be a part of the solution. Work done by a number of innovative agricultural organizations, including California’s Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), demonstrates that “climate smart” technologies that reduce the use of natural resources and capture carbon to restore soils can mitigate the impacts of climate change. (CAFF also wins for their recent email telling us to “Romaine calm” during the recent recall.) It is important for all of us who care about farmers and a sustainable food system to help build the political will to make these types of efforts a statewide and nationwide priority.
As we move into another holiday season, content in the knowledge that romaine is once again safe to eat, let us all celebrate the work of the farmers who produced it and commit ourselves to their ongoing success.