CDC’s warning to steer clear of romaine lettuce hitting Hawaii suppliers, farmers hard

Palettes of returned and unsold boxes of romaine lettuce sit in Armstrong Produce's warehouse...
Palettes of returned and unsold boxes of romaine lettuce sit in Armstrong Produce's warehouse in Mapunapuna.(Hawaii News Now)
Updated: Nov. 22, 2018 at 8:29 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - FDA officials say California may be the source of the latest E. coli outbreak, but the warning to stay away from all romaine lettuce remains in effect as the investigation continues.

The contaminated lettuce has made at least 32 people sick in 11 states.

And while there have been no reported cases of illness in Hawaii, some local businesses are already seeing an impact.

At Armstrong Produce in Mapunapuna, palettes of romaine lettuce are just sitting in the warehouse, and there are even more already on the way to Oahu on a barge.

Tish Uyehara, Armstrong's Director of Marketing and Food Safety, says this is going to be a major disaster for the industry if the source of the outbreak isn't found soon.

"Nobody is going to touch it. Nobody is going to buy it," said Uyehara. "It's costly and it's huge volumes. We consider it a very dire situation at this point."

Uyehara says sales have dropped since the CDC issued its warning Monday.

She says restaurants and businesses continue to pull romaine from their menus and stores, and she says some clients have been returning boxes and asking for refunds.

"Who then is responsible to pay for the product? We don't feel we're responsible," Uyehara said.

"It's a bad time because it's the holidays as well, so everybody has ordered and planned for the holiday season and now everything is just going to be sitting there."

Lane Muraoka, the owner of Big City Diner, says they pulled romaine from the menus at all their restaurants.

"For public safety. We just need to be very cautious at this time," said Muraoka.

He says until they get the all clear from health officials, they'll substitute vegetables where they can.

The prices for other types of lettuce are going up now that they're in high demand.

“We’ve been offering green leaf lettuce. We’ve been trying to get iceberg, but the supplies are limited,” Muraoka said.

Hawaii's agriculture industry leaders say it's unfortunate that the CDC put out such a broad warning.

They say they are grateful the state Health Department told the public local lettuce is safe to eat, but they are concerned consumers may just avoid romaine all together.

“It’s so broad brushed, and some of these guys will go out of business depending on how long it last. It’s going to hurt everyone down the line,” Uyehara said.

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