Washington Insider --Wednesday

More Trouble With Romaine Lettuce

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

US Ag Exports Seen Rebounding While Another Import Record Forecast By USDA

Increased values for U.S. pork, soybean and dairy exports helped fuel an increase in the forecast for U.S. agricultural exports for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 with another record seen for U.S. ag imports, according to USDA.

China remains a prominent factor in the U.S. agricultural export outlook. U.S. soybean exports are forecast to total $18 billion in FY 2020, up from USDA’s prior forecast they would be valued at $16.8 billion. The updated FY 2020 outlook is above the FY 2019 level of $16.9 billion, but shy of the FY 2018 mark of $21.7 billion. However, soybean export volumes for FY 2020 are seen holding at 48.3 million metric tons, down from 56.9 million metric tons in FY 2019.

The value of U.S. pork exports is seen at $6.7 billion, up $400 million from the prior outlook at sharply higher than the FY 2019 result of $5.5 billion. China is also a factor in that outlook, with USDA noting the rise is “largely due to demand from China.”

U.S. ag imports are now put at $132 billion, up from $129 billion and above the record of $131 billion in FY 2019. Imports also set new records in FY 2017 ($119.1 billion) and FY 2018 ($127.5 billion).

Much of the increase is seen for fresh fruits and vegetables and grain products, USDA said. “Fresh fruit imports are raised $1.7 billion to $15 billion, largely due to increased deliveries of avocados, berries, and melons from Mexico,” USDA detailed.

The aforementioned export and import forecasts would result in a trade balance of $7 billion, one billion less than USDA expected in August, but up from the $4.5 billion mark in FY 2019, the smallest U.S. ag trade black ink since FY 2006.

Big Impact If China Cuts Its Tariff On US Pork

A trade agreement that eliminates China’s 72% tariff on U.S. pork could reduce the bilateral trade deficit by nearly 6% and generate 184,000 new American jobs over the next decade, according to Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes for the National Pork Producers Council.

U.S. pork producers see a potential $24.5 billion market in China within 10 years if the Trump administration can gain unrestricted trade access after the Asian country’s hog herd has been devastated by African swine fever. The projection was based on a “best-case scenario” in which China drops all tariffs and barriers to pork imports, including speeding up customs processing to allow for imports of chilled pork.

Hayes projected that without tariffs, China would import 35% of its pork — a level similar to Mexico and Australia after they concluded free-trade agreements — and U.S. producers would capture half that market.

Washington Insider: More Trouble With Romaine Lettuce

Amid all the alarms about the trade war, another threat is being highlighted this week by federal health and regulatory officials who are cautioning about romaine lettuce “of any kind harvested from the Salinas Valley.”

The danger is that the lettuce “may be contaminated with a particularly dangerous type of E. coli bacteria that has sickened 40 people in 16 states.” The warnings were highlighted by an unusual range of urban media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others.

The warnings were stark — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration told consumers to throw away any romaine lettuce they may already have purchased. To be clear, they said “restaurants should not serve it, stores should not sell it, and people should not buy it, if it came from Salinas, a growing area in Northern California.” The warning covered products marketed in many forms, including “chopped, whole head, precut or part of a mix.”

Most romaine lettuce products are now labeled with a harvest location showing where they were grown, the Washington Post said and reported that “officials said to throw out lettuce if it doesn’t have a label specifying where it’s from.”

No deaths have been reported in this E. coli outbreak, but the strain is the same one that caused outbreaks linked to leafy greens and romaine lettuce in the last two years. Just two days before Thanksgiving last year, CDC issued an unusually broad alert, warning consumers to avoid eating romaine lettuce of any kind in response to an outbreak.

Of those who have been sickened in this outbreak by E. coli O157: H7, 28 people have been hospitalized, including five who have developed a type of kidney failure. This E. coli strain produces a Shiga toxin that can enter a person’s bloodstream and wreak havoc on kidney function. Symptoms of infection include vomiting, painful cramps and diarrhea that is often bloody.

The largest number of cases reported so far has been in Wisconsin, with 10 cases, the Post said. Other cases have been reported in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington. The report said that FDA and states are tracing the source of the romaine lettuce eaten by the ill consumers, but that “no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand of romaine lettuce has been identified.”

The Post also said that “whole genome sequencing shows the strain in romaine lettuce tested by the Maryland Health Department is closely related genetically to the E. coli found in sick people from several locations. And it noted that USDA has a list of 35 recalled products sold under different brand names and “use by” dates from Oct. 29, 2019 to Nov. 1, 2019.

At this time, there is no recommendation for consumers or retailers to avoid using or selling romaine harvested from places other than Salinas, or labeled as indoor, or hydroponically- or greenhouse-grown, FDA officials said.

Convenience salads, from tubs of prewashed baby spinach to bags of chopped romaine, are regularly implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks, the Post said. Last year, an outbreak that began in March from chopped, bagged, as well as whole heads of romaine was the largest E. coli outbreak in more than a decade, killing five people and sickening more than 200 others in three dozen states.

Food safety experts have said those convenience greens carry an extra risk because they come in contact with more people and machinery before they arrive on your plate. Contamination can occur on the farm from birds flying overhead or when low-lying fields flood with contaminated water. E. coli can also be spread by farmworkers who don’t wash their hands or via farm equipment that has manure on it.

Once the greens are picked, they move to packaging plants where they may be exposed to more workers and more equipment. Products from multiple farms is often bagged in the same facility, which further increases the odds of cross-contamination.

The problem with lettuce is that it is usually consumed fresh without being cooked or otherwise prepared in ways that can kill bacteria. In addition special testing ahead of distribution is both difficult and costly since the amounts of produce involved can be very large.

At the same time, food borne illness outbreaks are extremely damaging to the fresh food industry as well as to the credibility of the entire food supply system. Regulators have recently been given new authorities to take steps to insure the safety of the food supply and need to take extraordinary steps as necessary to carry out those directions, Washington Insider believes.

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