After a widespread E. coli outbreak in 12 states including Connecticut, federal health officials issued an unusually broad warning just before Thanksgiving – urging consumers to throw away all romaine lettuce. Now they say the contaminated product originated in parts of California.
H2O Farm in Guilford specializes in growing leafy greens using hydroponics. Farm manager Chaim Tovia said once the warning came out, many supermarkets suspended all romaine orders till further notice. But the farm was able to quickly adjust. “We [sold] a lot more Boston lettuce, a lot more green leaf and red leaf,” he said.
The farm grows lettuce year-round in a greenhouse, averaging about 60,000 heads of lettuce weekly. Using the hydroponic system, there’s no soil. Seeds are planted in a medium like gravel. Once the roots are ready, lettuce plants are moved to beds that float in nutrient-enriched water till they’re ready to be harvested.
And the enclosed environment helps to protect against E. coli, said Tovia. The bacteria "is caused by - excuse my French - bird poop, or animal poop,” said Tovia. “We don’t have birds in [the] greenhouse.”
In this week’s update, the FDA noted that hydroponic romaine lettuce has not been implicated in any identified E. coli outbreak. Still H2O Farm tossed a lot of product last week - about 5,000 to 6,000 heads.
The FDA is calling for lettuce growers to provide detailed labels on packages that spell out where and when romaine is harvested. Tovia said with hydroponics, that could be in the middle of summer or winter because it’s all indoors.
“Outside can be hot or snow,” he said. “But when you come in, it’s nice and green. It makes you smile.”