Food Safety and Fake Science

Happy New Year and welcome to the 2018 Terra Firma fruit and vegetable season!
Some of you were probably among the 5 million Americans who travelled by air this holiday season, including me.  If you were on a crowded plane or in a jammed airport, you might have felt like the whole country was flying during that time.  But most holiday travel — 90 million trips — is by road.
Compare those statistics with another activity that many Americans did during the holidays: eating romaine lettuce.  Approximately 150 million people had a Caesar salad or something similar during that time.
Unfortunately, 65 people who ate romaine lettuce in Canada and the U.S. got sick in late December.  Sadly, three of them died.  If you haven’t heard this news, it’s understandable given everything happening in the world.  But as vegetable farmers, we are always sensitive to these types of stories.
Public health officials have not yet identified where the offending lettuce was grown — or even whether or not the lettuce is actually the culprit.  Yet that did not stop the Canadian government from issuing a recall of all romaine lettuce.  And the non-profit Consumers Reports decided to recommend that everyone avoid any romaine lettuce.
It’s terrible that 65 of those lettuce eaters got sick, and a tragedy that anyone may have died from eating it.  But that is less than one illness for every million heads of lettuce eaten.  Almost the same risk as dying of  a commercial airline flight.   And the chances of dying from your romaine lettuce in December? One in 20 million.
The riskiest part of eating lettuce is driving to the store to buy it. One in three hundred car trips ends in a fatality.
So far the Centers for Disease Control has refrained from making any recommendation about romaine lettuce.  That’s a sensible position, since it could easily be argued that the benefits of eating lettuce likely outweigh the risks.
But a recommendation from a group like Consumer Reports can have a devastating impact on producers of a crop like lettuce.  Even a small reduction in sales can cause prices to collapse, which leads growers to abandon fields and lay off their employees.  And a full on recall like the one in Canada can put farmers out of business completely.  Recall insurance for fresh produce is essentially unheard of.
Terra Firma only grows around 100,000 heads of lettuce annually.  So statistically speaking, one person might get sick from our lettuce every ten years.  Having said that, I should also say while contaminated lettuce involved in this outbreak may have come from California, it certainly did not come from Terra Firma.  None of our lettuce travels more than 100 miles before being prepared and eaten — much less out of state or to Canada.  It’s a given that the farther fresh produce travels and the more time that elapses between harvest and consumption, the more likely that any pathogens on it will multiply.
Everyone has the right to make decisions about what they will and won’t eat based on the information available to them. But Consumer Reports’ action is, simply put, Fake Science.   If they are going to recommend that people stop eating romaine lettuce, then they should also tell people to stop flying on airplanes — and certainly to sell their cars.  Eating lettuce is one of the safest activities you can do in this modern world.
Thanks,
Pablito

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