CALEDONIA — While a contamination outbreak signals bad news for some lettuce growers, others are using the recent romaine lettuce recall as an opportunity to increase business sales.
That’s the case at Revolution Farms LLC, a Caledonia-based aquaponics operation that has the capacity to produce more than 350,000 pounds of local lettuce annually. Recently, the company’s ramped up production amid “significant growth” to cater to the demand for more lettuce, said company CEO Tripp Frey.
“It has definitely been a boon for us,” Frey told Michigan Farm News this week. “We are definitely seeing an impact that wasn’t good for the whole industry that is good for us now. We were not affected by that (recall) advisory, and that’s good for (our) customers.”
According to Business Insider, overall lettuce sales are down more than $71 million in 2018 as “the industry has been pummeled with food-poisoning outbreaks.”
Already, there have been two E.coli outbreaks in 2018, one of which resulted in the deaths of five people, as Business Insider reported in June.
Steve Kluting, the national director of product recall for food and agribusiness at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., a Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based risk management firm, said romaine lettuce and other leafy greens “pose unique food safety concerns/challenges — and that is bearing out in the events we’ve experienced here recently.”
Some of Kluting’s responsibilities include helping the firm’s food clients deal with and understand food recall situations.
“The most significant concerns is the time it takes to link the growing areas to a given outbreak – the trace back is not always easily or quickly determinable,” Kluting wrote in an email to Michigan Farm News. “Without knowing (or even being able to quickly narrow down) the source of the contamination, the entire industry is susceptible to loss. This is of course compounded by FDA publicly-issued warnings to consumers to not to eat any romaine — meaning grocery stores and restaurant chains reject all product (whether contaminated or not). That said, taking that course of action protects the public health until the trace back can be investigated and narrowed.
“It’s the safest approach — despite the industry-wide losses it causes.”
According to Frey, Revolution Farms is “less susceptible to those major outbreaks — those disruptions that come from a centralized food system.”
“It’s a good reminder that we can be a great partner for these folks,” Frey said. “I will never tell anyone that we are immune to those issues. Nothing is certain except death and taxes. … However, Revolution Farms’ lettuce is grown in a greenhouse, which is a controlled, indoor environment. Additionally, our product is packaged on-site, which means it is not co-mingled with produce from other farms, (which is) standard procedure at many food processing or co-packing facilities.”
Although Frey wouldn’t disclose numbers of business growth since the outbreak, he did say that “we are continuing on a positive trajectory.”
For example, the company’s increased the number of locations its product is sold from 16 SpartanNash locations to 82 stores across the state.
“We could be north of 350 stores eventually,” Frey said. “We are also rolling out to all independent grocers this week.”