The winter desert lettuce season is lingering longer than most growers expected.

Yuma sees its share of trouble

Dawn Withers
Staff Writer

Yuma, Ariz., where the nation’s winter lettuce is grown and shipped, is at the center of an E. coli outbreak in the Midwest and may face troubling labor prospects this winter after the passage of harsh new laws in Arizona.

With about 30 people believed to be ill from eating contaminated romaine from Yuma, investigators from the Food and Drug Administration are combing through fields empty of lettuce to see what evidence they can gather to answer the always-pressing question of how it happened.

It’s the first time Yuma has been implicated in an outbreak, but the effects will surely be felt in Salinas, Calif., where nearly all the major lettuce grower-shippers are based. They temporarily move to Yuma when the weather turns too cold and wet in the Salad Bowl.

Outbreaks are messy affairs to cover because clarity in reporting is difficult to achieve early on when information is new, partial and constantly changing.

Hearkening back to 2006 — the FDA investigation into a leafy green-linked outbreak that actually pinpointed a source — I remember weeks of confusion as potential suppliers were eliminated from the list of suspects, regular phone conference calls with federal and state investigators, and some small satisfaction in answering how the contamination happened in the first place.

This outbreak is not 2006, but it’s serious because people are sick and there are still loads of unanswered questions around the identity of the grower, potential lapses in food safety practices, and what the industry tells consumers who remain skeptical about the efficacy of leafy green food safety practices in the face of continuing public illnesses.

Yuma may also see other troubles this winter when growers will need workers to cut iceberg, pack romaine and clip green leaf lettuce. Many of those fieldworkers come over from Mexico every day to work in the fields. Many work illegally.

According to The Atlantic magazine, the Department of Labor estimates that of the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers, most of whom are Latino, 52% are illegal immigrants, and the United Farm Workers of America thinks the figure is actually 80% to 90%.

Among its provisions, Arizona’s new law, which takes effect in July, requires immigrants to carry papers proving they are legally in the U.S. and allows local police to stop people and ask to see their documents.

No matter where you stand on this law (which may be overturned before Yuma lettuce starts to grow), The Atlantic points out in an online story that fieldworkers will be reluctant (not to mention scared) to work, and one legal source of labor for the industry, H-2A visas, is a “very inflexible, onerous, expensive guest worker program,” according to Western Growers.

Tom Church, president of Church Brothers, Salinas, told The Atlantic that “the absolute last resort is finding Americans to work the fields.”

Cutting lettuce is hard work with long hours and low pay. I’ve seen plenty of harvest crews to know it takes skill, too, and a back of steel to crouch for hours.

An outbreak and labor disruption are two of the most serious problems the industry faces at a time when it is trying to get salad bars into schools and get more Americans to eat produce, including lettuce.

E-mail dwithers@thepacker.com

Have you been affected by the recent E. coli outbreak? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.