Marketplace Report: Suspected E. Coli Forces Lettuce Recall

Weeks after an E. coli outbreak forced bagged spinach off grocery store shleves, a Salinas, Calif -based produce company has recalled thousands of cartons of lettuce amid fears of E. coli contamination. Madeleine Brand speaks with Marketplace's Amy Scott about the impact of the recall on the produce industry.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. Well, maybe it's time to give up green veggies. We heard about the bacteria E. coli and spinach. Now, a popular brand of lettuce has been recalled over fears of E. coli contamination. Though the Food and Drug Administration lifted its warning on fresh spinach last week, customers are being told to throw away the Foxy brand of green leaf lettuce now. MARKETPLACE's Amy Scott is here. And Amy, how widespread is this latest recall?

AMY SCOTT: Well, it covers green leaf lettuce sold in grocery stores under the Foxy brand between October 3 and October 6 in a handful of Western states, from Arizona to Montana. The lettuce may have also found its way into restaurants and other institutions. Now, it's important to say that no lettuce was actually found to be contaminated. The producer, Nunez Company, ordered the recall after it found E. coli bacteria in its irrigation system. This was in the same area - California's Salinas Valley - that was at the center of the recent spinach recall. That outbreak, of course, made some 200 people sick and has been linked to three deaths. Spinach now is back on the shelf at grocery stores after the FDA lifted its warning last week, but of course this is another setback for the produce industry.

BRAND: Right, and I would think lettuce would be a much bigger industry than spinach, so how serious could this be?

SCOTT: Well, it's hard to say at this point. As you know, the impact on spinach farmers has been quite severe, with farmers, you know, plowing up their fields and laying off workers. I talked to Daniel Sumner, who teaches agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. He says loose leaf lettuce, the particular kind of lettuce in question here, makes up just a fraction of the two billion dollar lettuce industry.

Mr. DANIEL SUMNER (University of California, Davis): That said, I'm not sure consumers, which are who's important here, I'm not sure they'll make a distinction and say. ah, that was leaf lettuce, not romaine, or not head lettuce. And in fact, it's a problem for the whole produce industry, because I think there are consumers that'll say, gee, if it's lettuce, it could be broccoli, or who knows. And some consumers will react that way.

SCOTT: And just last week a few brands of carrot juice were recalled after four cases of botulism were reported in Georgia and Florida. So consumers may be a lot more cautious in the produce aisle.

BRAND: And not just produce. Last Friday there was a beef recall over possible E. coli contamination. Why is there so much of this now?

SCOTT: Well, the FDA says these sorts of outbreaks have actually been declining in recent years. And again, the beef recall you mentioned in Iowa, there are no reported illnesses in that case. But as with the lettuce recall, analysts say you probably will see more companies testing their irrigation systems and many of them coming up with potential problems.

And coming up later today on MARKETPLACE, we'll have another conversation from the corner office with the founder of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy.

BRAND: Thank you, Amy. That's Amy Scott of public radio's daily business show MARKETPLACE. It's produced by American Public Media.

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