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A Shortage of This Popular Produce Is Looming, Experts Warn

Unseasonable weather has caused widespread lettuce crop losses in California.

You might not see many heads of lettuce in the grocery store crisper in the coming weeks—and your fast-food sandwich might be short a few shreds, too. A number of shortages plagued the country in 2020, including toilet paper, cranberries, and even foreign beer. Causes ranged from bankruptcy to lockdown stockpiling, but unusual weather is behind this latest shortage. (Related: 8 Grocery Items That May Soon Be in Short Supply Again.)

California experienced unseasonably hot weather earlier this year, which impacted the lettuce crop in the state. "We had two heat events in mid-August and early September," Richard Smith, a farm advisor for vegetable crop production at the University of California, tells Eat This, Not That!. "They did cause some quality issues, but the bigger issue is that they set off a disease on the lettuce that caused extensive crop loss."

The outbreak of the disease, known as Pythium wilt, was unprecedented in its widespread severity. Ash from the wildfires earlier this year could have also damaged some of the lettuce, Christopher Valadez, President of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, told CBS in Fresno County.

Californian farms account for over 70% of the lettuce grown in the U.S., according to Agricultural Marketing Resouce Center, so this kind of crop loss could potentially cause nationwide shortages. According to Smith, lettuce prices also went up last month in response to the reduced supply.

This isn't the first time lettuce has made headlines. Just recently, bags of lettuce and salad kits containing romaine were recalled over possible E. coli contamination, and a recent lawsuit filed against Chipotle alleged that a customer developed E. coli from the romaine lettuce in the fast-food chain's salad bowls.

Lettuce is grown in microclimates in places like Mexico, Canada, and other parts of the world to ensure a year-round supply, so we may not have to wait too long before there's enough of this salad staple to go around. Thankfully, there are plenty of healthy options to replace lettuce on your shopping list in the meantime.

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Urvija Banerji
Urvija Banerji has written about food for publications like Atlas Obscura, Eater, and The Swaddle. Read more
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