A nationwide outbreak of the E.Coli virus linked to romaine lettuce coming out of California has created an increased demand for locally grown greens in Maine.
“When something like this happens, people default to remembering we have a fairly large and significant [local] food scene in Maine, and people seek it out,” said Michael Walter, produce manager at the Belfast Co-op. “Our farmers [in Belfast] have been selling out of greens quickly.”
Two days before Thanksgiving, the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Centers for Disease Control issued a warning telling stores to pull any romaine lettuce from their shelves, restaurants not to serve romaine and for consumers to throw out any they may have already purchased.
The warning came after 43 people in 12 states and 22 people in three Canadian provinces were sickened by E.Coli after eating romaine lettuce.
The warning covered romaine that was chopped, whole head or part of a salad mix.
As the lettuce was pulled from larger supermarket chain stores, Walter said the impact on the Belfast Co-op was immediate as the store quickly sold out of locally grown produce and continues to have a tough time keeping it in stock.
“We have empty shelves as well,” he said Tuesday. “People are looking for local food from people they can trust [and] an increase in that interest in the last several days has certainly been noticeable by us.”
On Monday, the FDA announced it had traced the outbreak to the coastal growing regions of central and northern California.
According to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, romaine lettuce now entering the market will be labeled with information on where and when it was harvested, a practice Maine growers have been doing for years, according to Marada Cook, general manager at Crown O’ Maine Organic Co-op.
“Many of us have known for years that the anonymity of the industrial food system — so people have no idea where their food came from or who handled it — is not okay,” Cook said. “These larger farms are now realizing they are liable for the foibles of the entire industry.”
By labeling foods with dates and locations of harvest, if something does make consumers sick, it can be traced back to a specific shipment or harvest and a national warning like the most recent one involving romaine lettuce can be avoided, Cook said.
“Traceability is key,” Cook said. “I tell my farmers labeling is so important so they can show if there is a problem somewhere, it’s not their product.”
Crown O’ Maine Organic Coop purchases and delivers organic Maine food all over the state, and Cook said she is currently getting her romaine lettuce from Springworks Farm in Lisbon but is having a tough time keeping up with demand.
“We’ve seen our orders increasing because people know it’s a safe product,” Cook said. “It really points to the importance people are starting to place on knowing where their food comes from.”
At the Natural Living Center in Bangor, produce manager Megan Stinson has been answering more customer questions about the source of their greens in general, and romaine lettuce in particular, since the national warning came out.
“We’ve always had a big following of people who buy their produce here,” Stinson said Tuesday. “But I’ve had more people inquiring about the romaine lettuce recall and making sure what we have is not part of that.”
Stinson is able to assure her steady and newer customers that everything — romaine lettuce included — is purchased from trusted organic growers around New England.
“We are lucky that none of them have been hit with the E.Coli issue,” Stinson said. “There is certainly more of a vested interest in getting food locally so you know where it came from, who grew it, and you can actually go to that farm and really trace the journey of your food.”
The interest in locally produced greens has not waned, Walter said, adding he is looking for ways to meet that demand.
“The customers are being pretty savvy and see local food is the best,” Walter said. “They don’t go back to the California lettuce by default, they go back because we have not figured out how to grow enough in Maine in the winter.”
For now, the co-op is doing its best to keep up with that demand by purchasing bagged salads and spinach from area farms that are growing produce indoors.
Stinson said the Natural Living Center has currently sold out of lettuce and other greens and is waiting for a shipment from Crown O’ Maine.
“We really noticed how quickly we sold out of all of our mesclun, spinach and all the other greens,” Stinson said. “We should have more [Wednesday], but the storm has slowed things up a bit.”