'Romaine calm,' hydroponic farm says to northern Manitoba community, we've got you covered

Opaskwayak Cree Nation Smart Farm says its entire crop of 2,500 heads of romaine lettuce was reserved by people in the community a week before it's even been harvested.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation LED Smart Farm says entire harvest of romaine lettuce is spoken for

Canadian and American officials are advising people not to buy romaine lettuce until they can find the source of E. coli contamination, but have not issued a blanket recall that makes it mandatory for stores to pull the product from their shelves. Some retailers, including Sobeys Inc., have done so voluntarily. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

A Northern Manitoba First Nation hydroponic farm's entire crop of romaine lettuce is spoken for as an E. coli outbreak prompts retailers across the country to recall the leafy green vegetable from store shelves.

"We're working diligently to get produce back into the community and make sure that everybody has their romaine  lettuce," said Opaskwayak Cree Nation LED Smart Farm operations manager Stephanie Cook.

In a Facebook post, Cook told customers to "romaine calm ... OCN Smart Farms got you covered." 

Cook said a little more than 2,500 heads of romaine lettuce will be ready for consumption next week, but before they're even ready to harvest, the entire crop has already been snapped up.

Cook put up this post on the Smart Farm's Facebook page Saturday to let the community know the produce plant was working on getting romaine lettuce to anyone who wanted it. (Opaskwayak LED Smart Farm/Facebook)

"As soon as that whole E. coli thing came out I had people coming into the plant lining up and reserving romaine lettuce for their staff parties, Christmas parties coming up," said Cook. 

"Within three days all that lettuce was spoken for."

Cook said it takes about 20-28 days for a crop of lettuce to grow. The next batch is expected around Christmas.

The facility uses blue, red and green LED lights — with options to control UV and infrared light plus other settings — to mimic sunshine. A computer controls temperature and moisture in the room as well as carbon dioxide and nutrient levels.

Stephanie Cook, operations manager at OCN's vertical farm, says the plant is ramping up production of romaine lettuce after retailers pulled the product from store shelves amid an E. coli outbreak in Canada and the U.S. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is advising people living in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick to avoid eating romaine lettuce and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce until more is known about the outbreak and the cause of contamination. 

To date 22 people have fallen ill in Canada from E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce, including four cases in Ontario, 17 in Quebec and one in New Brunswick. 

The outbreak has also sickened more than 30 people in the U.S.

This is the third outbreak in North America suspected to be linked to romaine in the past year. 

Last week retailer Loblaw Companies Limited issued a countrywide recall of all romaine products off store shelves, as they may pose a risk to the health and safety of customers.  

Costco Wholesale has done the same in both Canada and the U.S.

"Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that residents in other parts of Canada are affected by this outbreak however, as a precaution Costco has decided to stop selling all romaine lettuce and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce in all warehouses across Canada and the US," Costco said in a statement on its website.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says to date 22 people have fallen ill in Canada from E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce, including 4 cases in Ontario, 17 in Quebec and 1 in New Brunswick. (CBC)

Safer food option 

Cook said the hydroponic farm is dedicated to food safety and takes steps to ensure the fruits and vegetables are grown in a clean environment. 

"We use fresh tap water, so it's been treated. It goes through your water treatment system and it comes into our system and then it's run through a UV light so that way we're less likely to have illnesses be introduced," said Cook.

"Plus it's a clean room. Think of it as a laboratory setting where we work. So we have to wear masks and there's very strict guidelines we have to follow," she said.

Cook said staff aren't allowed to wear nail polish or jewlery and are told to avoid using makeup and hair products to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

OCN has been growing fruits and vegetables like lettuce, cucumbers, and strawberries in an LED hydroponic farm since February 2016 to provide the community with free healthy food options year-round.

"A lot of issues that were plaguing the health department are linked up to the diet, of what people are eating in the community because technically we live in the north, it's not exactly easy to get a hold of say kohlrabi or certain produce throughout the year," said Cook.

She said nearly half of the people who live in OCN are diabetic. According to OCN, there are 4,652 members, about 2,850 of whom live on reserve. 

"When you live up in the north it's not exactly easy to get fresh produce up to the north because of either the produce itself can't handle the trip or the cost is the other thing," said Cook.

She said when the Smart Farm was launched, people in the community were skeptical about hydroponics. But now people have really come around.

"We've gotten to the point now when we do a harvest, we've got nothing left at the end of the day."

"We can grow up to 5,376 plants in one harvest, but we're working toward actually doing that number," said Cook.

About the Author

Caroline Barghout

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: caroline.barghout@cbc.ca

with files from Riley Laychuck