Food & Beverage

Iceberg lettuce prices soar as much as 168% after E. coli outbreak takes romaine off shelves

Key Points
  • Prices for lettuce varieties including iceberg and Boston lettuce soared after an outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce stopped sales of the popular salad green.
  • For the 52 weeks ended Nov. 10, U.S. lettuce production was valued at $1.6 billion, according to the latest Nielsen figures.
A produce worker stocks shelves near romaine lettuce (top shelf, right) at a supermarket in Washington, DC on November 20, 2018.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

After an outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce took the popular salad green off the shelves, prices for other types of lettuce soared, according to United States Department of Agriculture data.

In a weeks' time, the cost of a 24-count carton of iceberg lettuce rose anywhere from 168 percent to 119 percent. On Nov. 19, one day before the advisory, iceberg lettuce sold for $16.56 to $20.85 per carton. By Nov. 21, suppliers fetched between $36.65 and $39.56 for the same box. On Nov. 26, the day the advisory was lifted, the price had climbed to $44.35 to $45.65, according to the USDA's National FOB Review, which tracks daily produce prices. The numbers cited are for 90 percent of the sales tracked.

The USDA also said supplies of iceberg were light, and said demand exceeded supply. Prices of other lettuces, including Boston, red leaf and green leaf varieties, followed a similar pattern.

Trevor Suslow, the vice president of food safety for the Produce Marketing Association, said consumers turned to other lettuces to substitute romaine.

"As always seems to happen, there is an initial response when you take a major component out of the marketplace and others start to fill that gap," he said. "Prices certainly have taken an increase."

For the 52 weeks ended Nov. 10, U.S. lettuce production was valued at $1.6 billion, according to the latest Nielsen figures. Romaine accounted for about 38 percent of the total lettuce category.

Growers and produce associations said demand for lettuce was good in the days before the advisory was issued on Nov. 20. Romaine lettuce 24-count cartons cost between $18 and $25.45 on Nov. 19.

After the advisory was lifted, 24-count cartons of romaine sold for $24 to $30.65 on Nov. 27 and demand was moderate, according to the USDA. The USDA did not track data on romaine lettuce from Nov. 20 to Nov. 26 because there were no sales during the advisory.

The Food and Drug Administration narrowed the source of the E. coli outbreak to six California counties. Now that romaine lettuce grown outside of Northern California has been deemed safe for consumers, some farmers expect a spike in price as suppliers rush to fill demand over the next few days.

"Certainly as romaine is now going to start entering the marketplace for some period of time those that have it, those that are following the new labeling recommendations are commanding a very high price," Suslow said.

The Food and Drug Administration asked producers and distributors to label romaine lettuce with a harvest location and harvest date, and advised consumers not to eat romaine without a label.

Yuma, Arizona farmer John Boelts said past advisories on leafy greens lowered consumer confidence and prices. He thinks this time may be different.

"We've seen, maybe, folks have regained confidence more quickly here with romaine," he said. "We're seeing OK demand so far, but we'll see how that holds."

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