The ubiquitous green is a top-selling “high margin product,” particularly at this time of year, according to Sylvain Charlebois, food policy professor at Dalhousie University.
“The entire supply chain is paying for this, including grocers, agents and brokers,” Charlebois said. “Everyone is hit by an alert like that.”
As of Monday afternoon, Canada had seen 22 reported cases of infection. Major grocery store chains across Canada, such as Sobey’s and Safeway, have pulled romaine lettuce from their shelves, even in Alberta and British Columbia.
But it’s not just romaine lettuce that will bear the burden. Charlebois suspected that all lettuce sales will be affected, as consumers may just avoid the aisle altogether.
“The reason why we are seeing frequent problems is because of consumer demand,” he said. “Consumers are looking for affordable food products.”
It is “concerning” that the public ends up not knowing what actually happened or exactly where the contamination source may be, he added.
StarMetro reached out to Sobey’s, Safeway and the Overwaitea Group but received no response as of publication time. However, at a Vancouver Safeway location and a Nesters Market location on Sunday, signs advising against romaine were posted on the doors and all along the produce section.
In a precautionary move, the vast majority of restaurants in B.C. opted to stop selling romaine, said Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association. Since Caesar salads aren’t often a main dish, he said, most restaurants were able to work around it.
Calgary Co-op also followed suit and pulled between 15,000 to 20,000 units — individual products ranging from romaine lettuce itself to packaged salads — from its shelves, according to a statement from produce operations director Lawrence Wright.
Calgary Co-op said it relies on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to inspect imported food and ensure it isn’t contaminated, but more must be done.
“There is a very large focus in the industry to improve the traceability of fresh produce, but we are not where we need to be currently,” Wright said in the statement.
The challenge for food safety investigators is identifying the specific origin of the product — the farm and date of harvest — according to a statement from the CFIA.
The agency begins its sleuthing process based on the food history of patients, collected by public health officials. Once common products, stores or restaurants are identified, a further investigation is conducted with suppliers, distributors or wholesalers, the statement reads.
But the lag between the consumption of the food, the onset of symptoms and the completion of the tracing process is often longer than the shelf life of the product, it adds.
“This means that by the time an investigation starts into potential food items, the perishable goods are no longer in the marketplace … available for testing,” the statement says.
According to Lawrence Goodridge, professor of food safety at McGill University, fruits and vegetables are more prone to outbreaks because consumers ingest them raw.
Goodridge said it’s difficult to determine the source of an outbreak because of how we detect contamination in the first place.
In order for a public health alert to happen, a sick person has to go to a medical professional and typically give a stool specimen. But many people who are sick don’t go to the hospital, and even if they do, doctors may not take a sample. Instead, they send them home to drink fluids and rest, he explained.
“For every person that is sick with a food-borne illness, there’s likely 25 more people that we don’t know about,” he said. “It takes a lot of time for officials to know there’s an outbreak.”
Meanwhile, researchers have yet to fully understand all the ways that veggies can be contaminated, and questions remain around whether there is something specific to romaine that makes it more susceptible to bacteria.
“Once we figure that out, we need better ways to control these risks,” he said. “We know that climate, extreme rain or wind can cause and have caused outbreaks.”
Goodridge said growing vegetables in greenhouses is one way to decrease — but not eliminate — the risk, as it keeps the plants indoors and away from wild animals. According to Health Canada, leafy greens can become contaminated in the field by soil, water, animals or improperly composted manure.
But despite the public-health alerts in both Canada and the U.S., some vegetable producers in Western Canada aren’t too worried. Some are even optimistic that these scares may increase consumer interest in buying locally grown greens.
“We’ve seen these things before, and they tend to blow over,” said Gert Lund, who owns Lund’s Organic Farm out of Innisfail, Alta. “Once this stuff is no longer in the daily news, people tend to just go along with their lives and forget about it. It’s not a long-term impact for us.”
The organic farmer said his operation only grows in season and, right now, they’re down to selling root vegetables — turnips, onions and carrots — out of cold storage. Had the contamination warnings hit in July or August, Lund said, he may have been in some trouble.
There are also crucial differences between farms like Lund’s and major farms in California.
The farmer said he’d visited California lettuce farms before and described them as very intense operations. Some grow three monocrops of produce a year, which puts a lot of stress on the soil and environment. This means farmers often spray their fields with pesticides very heavily to kill microbes that would themselves actually kill E.coli.
“We’re a small family farm here,” he said. “Down there, they’re gigantic farms. They have hundreds of people working there.”
E. coli also tends to thrive in wet, warm environments — and California’s growing season fits the bill. This can pose a serious risk of contamination, especially given the way lettuce is actually eaten.
“The leaves themselves are the crop, so it’s not like a fruit,” said David Karwacki, CEO of The Star Group, a Canadian organization of fresh produce companies. “You’re growing these actual leaves in an environment that needs to be pristine because that’s what people are consuming.”
The organization’s Inspired Greens greenhouse facility in Coaldale, Alta., grows roughly 12 million heads of lettuce a year inside pathogen-free pots that are also biodegradable. A trio of lettuce types can be seeded and transplanted without ever being touched by human hands, The Star Group said in a statement. Harvesting at the greenhouse facility is still done by hand, but Karwacki said workers “are dressed up like they’re in an operating room.”
Several small-scale B.C. farmers told StarMetro that buying local helps consumers know the farmer and how the food got to their plate. In addition, many small farms do not use raw manure.
Yet Charlebois disagreed, arguing people can get just as sick from buying local food as much as imported produce.
“You are a consumer exposed to risks no matter what you buy. That said, the scale of these alerts are massive as a result of building these incredible economies of scale,” he explained. “If Arizona makes a couple of mistakes, an entire continent is affected as a result.”
That’s why better traceability systems — knowing lettuce’s journey from farm to plate — are needed to limit the impact of outbreaks, he added.
“I do think we will spend a romaine-lettuce-free holiday this year,” Charlebois said. “Why bother importing when you know nobody is going to buy it? Goodbye romaine lettuce, hello baby kale.”
Brennan Doherty is a work and wealth reporter with StarMetro Calgary. Follow him on Twitter: @bren_doherty
Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering food culture and policy. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia
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