Alberta lettuce growers offer ‘clean’ produce
An ongoing E. coli scare linked to romaine lettuce is one reason a major produce company believes there is a future for growing lettuce indoors in southern Alberta.
David Karwacki, CEO of Saskatoon-based The Star Group — which has a number of different vegetable growing and distributing operations under its umbrella — said his company’s Inspired Greens greenhouses that opened near Coaldale in June 2017 have the capacity to produce about 12 million heads of lettuce a year. Lettuce is typically a field crop, but Karwacki said the company saw market potential in growing it indoors in a controlled environment and selling consumers on its cleanliness and safety.
“There’s no question that the field growers in California have had significant problems with E. coli and salmonella,” Karwacki said. “That was one of the inspirations behind what we were trying to do here.”
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the current outbreak — which has sickened at least 18 people in Ontario and Quebec and has been traced to the consumption of romaine lettuce — has been genetically linked to illnesses reported in a previous E. coli outbreak from December 2017 that affected consumers in both Canada and the U.S.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that consumers should avoid eating romaine lettuce and demanded that retailers and restaurants remove it from store shelves and stop including it in meals. Here in Canada, the country ’s public health and food inspection agencies stopped short of insisting on its removal, though it did advise people in Ontario and Quebec to stop eating romaine lettuce.
Growing lettuce indoors eliminates the chance of contamination from nearby animal production facilities, from irrigation, or from birds or other animals getting into the fields — all of which are risk factors for E. coli outbreaks. Karwacki said Inspired Greens has had such success marketing itself as a source of clean, fresh, healthy lettuce that it plans to double its capacity at the Coaldale greenhouses by April 2019. However, he acknowledged that other varieties of lettuce are proving to be a better sell than romaine right now.
“Our problem with romaine lettuce is that when you have these scares, people just don’t want to eat any romaine,” Karwacki said. “We’re growing some romaine right now — it’s perfectly safe, I ate some yesterday. But when you do have these food scares, people just stay away from it.”
Grocery giants Empire Company Ltd., Loblaw Companies Ltd. and Metro Inc. said on Wednesday they were temporarily taking hundreds of products containing the vegetable off shelves at thousands of grocery stores that they own.
Karen Allan, spokeswoman for Calgary Co-op, said that chain is not removing any product because it doesn’t source its lettuce from the California region that has been identified as the likely source of the outbreak. However, she said members who are uncomfortable consuming romaine they have purchased at Calgary Co-op can return the product for a full refund.
Most of Canada’s romaine lettuce is imported from the U.S. because Canada’s growing season ended in August. But Gert Lund of Lunds Organic Farm near Innisfail said even during the summer, when he was selling his locally grown organic lettuce at the Calgary Farmers’ Market, he was fielding questions from consumers about how his lettuce is grown, its safety and cleanliness.
“It’s an easy one to explain for us, because most of these (outbreaks) are caused by irrigation, and we don’t irrigate. And we don’t have any intensive confined feeding operations near where we are,” Lund said. “So it’s a really clean environment how we grow it, and I try to explain that to them.”