Over the past several weeks, at least 60 people in Canada and the U.S. have become sick from a dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria, likely from eating romaine lettuce. There has also been one death in Canada related to consumption of tainted lettuce.
Canadian health authorities recently identified romaine lettuce as the source of the outbreak in Canada — and at least one local grower says demand for local produce has skyrocketed since that announcement.
Chris Buhler is a co-operator of Floating Gardens, a hydroponic greenhouse operating year-’round near Saskatoon. He says a good vegetable producer will avoid getting any water on the plants’ leaves.
“Our lettuce is growing in a float-culture, so it’s growing on rafts that float on water,” Buhler said. “So the leaves never get water on them. We start them at the one-leaf stage and we transplant them into float beds for about six to eight weeks – depending on the time of year – then we harvest them.”
Buhler says he trusts his local water system from Saskatoon, but despite that, every safety measure is taken to ensure the lettuce leaves above the water remain dry.
“That’s where plant diseases start,” Buhler said. “And we do that also for food safety. You don’t want to have any more water on anything than you can help. Our water is all municipal water from Saskatoon.”
Officials have not confirmed how the romaine lettuce was tainted, but experts have said using a poor water source may have contributed to the illnesses.
“Any plant leaf on anything we produce, like tomatoes or lettuce, we try very hard to water such that it doesn’t touch the leaves,” Buhler said. “Because essentially the indoor environment is perfect for the plant, but it’s also perfect for plant diseases to start.”