Indoor growers say their romaine should have been excluded from the Food and Drug Administration’s temporary blanket ban because their contained operations are different from traditional field farming — although they agree consumer safety should always come first.
“They fundamentally should not be lumping us together. When you have a blanket ban, it creates more uncertainty and mistrust,” said Marc Oshima, co-founder and chief marketing officer of AeroFarms, Newark, N.J.
On Nov. 20, the FDA issued a broad advisory against eating romaine during an E. coli outbreak that’s led to 43 illnesses in the U.S. and 22 in Canada. After the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the FDA announced the contamination was traced to California’s Central Coast, and all other sources of romaine are safe.
AeroFarms’ customers hadn’t stopped buying romaine as of Nov. 26, Oshima said. The company didn’t dump its existing romaine because it was managed from seed to package with all incoming water tested.
These kinds of indoor farms are often vertical, soilless farms found in urban and suburban warehouses. They use different proprietary hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic techniques, but mostly the methods eliminate exposure to animal waste, untreated water and agricultural runoff.
Also, the supply chain is short and simple.
In most cases, indoor/urban/vertical farms supply local areas. Traceability is especially easy with digital vertical farming, said Sonia Lo, CEO of Crop One Holdings, the company behind indoor farming operation FreshBox Farms, Millis, Mass.
“We can trace every leaf we grow back to a 2-foot-by-4-foot shelf where it was grown,” Lo said. “In the moment of crisis, it’s hard to cherry pick who is and who isn’t affected, but I think it’s critical to improve traceability industrywide, so we don’t get caught up in this again.”
Like most, Bowery Farming’s tristate area customers cleared their shelves and menus of romaine, said Irving Fain, CEO and cofounder of the closed-loop indoor farming system based in Kearny, N.J.
“While we understand the CDC’s concerns and that the safety of consumers must come first, Bowery produce is completely safe to consume and shouldn’t be categorized alongside field-grown produce,” Fain said.
Retail customers of the romaine grown in the hydroponic greenhouses in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois run by BrightFarms, Irvington, N.Y., also decided to remove romaine from shelves, said Paul Lightfoot, BrightFarms CEO.
Most of the product was donated to food banks because “we did not have any hesitation to eat it ourselves or give it to anyone else,” Lightfoot said. By Nov. 27, BrightFarms’ major customers had resumed shipping.
“We think we should be treated as we are, which is structurally safer,” Lightfoot said. “That doesn’t mean we’re free from risk, just less risk. And that doesn’t mean we don’t need to take every step we can take to increase our safety.”
At the United Fresh Produce Association’s expo in June in Chicago, a group of controlled-environment growers launched a coalition to establish food safety standards geared specifically for their brands — including founding members AeroFarms, BrightFarms and Little Leaf Farms.