Al­berta let­tuce grow­ers of­fer ‘clean’ pro­duce

Calgary Herald - - NEWS - AMANDA STEPHEN­SON With files from The Cana­dian Press astephen­[email protected]­media.com

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.”

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