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Romaine lettuce scare has Montreal clients turning to local greenhouses



With no romaine lettuce in stores or restaurants because of the E. coli outbreak, some are turning to local greenhouses for safer greens.

As food safety authorities in Canada and the U.S continue to warn against eating romaine lettuce because of the recent E. coli outbreak, many consumers seem to be turning to local, hydroponically grown greens as a safer way of getting their salad fix.

Lufa Farms, which operates three rooftop greenhouses in the region, has seen a significant bump in new clients ordering their weekly baskets of local products. Lufa Farms co-founder and marketing director Lauren Rathmell said it seems likely the increase is because of the romaine shortage.

While Rathmell said she has no evidence that a direct correlation can be made with the increase in members to Lufa Farms with the romaine lettuce shortage, she said, “I would certainly say that the past week and a bit have been our record weeks to date by far.”

She said clients have been calling to ask specifically about the safety of Lufa’s hydroponically grown romaine lettuce at its Anjou site.

News of the E. coli outbreak has prompted most grocery stores and restaurants in the U.S. and Canada to remove romaine lettuce from shelves and menus, since the first public health notice was issued on Nov. 20.

In the U.S., 32 people in several states have so far been confirmed sick from E. coli contaminations after consuming romaine lettuce, and 13 have been hospitalized. In Canada, there have been 22 confirmed cases so far, including 17 in Quebec, four in Ontario, and one in New Brunswick. Eight Canadians have been hospitalized, and one has contracted hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a severe complication that can cause ongoing kidney problems or death.

The news has some people seeking out greenhouse-grown vegetables, where there is less chance of contamination from contact with feces from infected animals.

“When you grow hydroponically in greenhouses like we do, its soil-less,” Rathmell said. “So there is no manure, and there are no other contaminants coming in from outside. So there is very, very little risk. We can’t say there is no risk … but there is virtually none.”

Founded in 2011, Lufa now has rooftop greenhouses in Laval, Ahuntsic and Anjou. The company partners with local farms to provide food baskets containing not only rooftop grown vegetables but also fresh, locally produced meats, dairy products, bread, pasta, etc. Clients customize their baskets online and pick them up from locations around the city.

Rathmell said Lufa ships baskets of produce to about 14,000 clients a week, and that number has been growing, generally, by a few hundred per week. She declined to give exact recent numbers but said that in the past couple of weeks, the increase has been “in the higher hundreds rather than the lower hundreds, if I had to give you a ball park.”
Experts say there is no such thing as no risk of contamination, since seeds can be contaminated before planting and post-harvest handling by humans can also transmit harmful pathogens, but food grown in greenhouses without soil is definitely lower risk.

“There is very little handling,” Rathmell said. “The Anjou site is remarkable. It’s basically this sea of greens when you walk in. So there is almost no handling or walkways in between the crops. You plant a seedling, and about four to five weeks later it’s ready to harvest and there is just one step. We take that lettuce, roots and all, we put it in a bag and it goes straight to the customer within a day. So there are no entry points” for pathogens, she said.

But for another local hydroponic producer, the romaine lettuce shortage has not been particularly beneficial.

Sylvain Terrault, president and CEO of Hydroserre Mirabel, said his company is already producing various greens — mainly Boston lettuce, but also oakleaf lettuce, swiss chard, mâche, etc. — at capacity in its three greenhouse complexes in the region.

The company does not produce romaine, but his clients, mainly grocery store chains in Canada and the U.S., have been calling to demand more of the greens Mirabel does produce to fill the void left by romaine.

“It has had an impact, but not necessarily an agreeable one, in the sense that our clients want a lot (more greens), and we can’t satisfy (the demand), and a client not satisfied is not a happy client,” he said, adding his company has a policy of not increasing prices as a function of a punctual shortage, so there hasn’t really been an upside.