How Indoor Lettuce Growers Turned the Romaine Recall Into an Educational Opportunity
The E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce in Nov. 2018, shortly before Thanksgiving, added yet another food safety incident to a growing list of recent outbreaks. Indoor leafy greens producers used social media to assure consumers their products were safely grown in a controlled environment while they waited for the FDA to narrow its recall list. Greenhouse Grower reached out to four major indoor growers of leafy greens to ask how the incident helped them develop more trust among consumers.
GG: Did your company use social media to speak out about the outbreak and let consumers know where your lettuce was grown and that it was grown in a controlled environment? If so, did you find it effective, and what was the response from consumers?
Viraj Puri, Co-founder and CEO of Gotham Greens: Yes, within hours of the CDC’s announcement, we had posted on our Facebook and Instagram feeds to assure consumers that our products were safe and we had not been affected by the E.coli outbreak The response from consumers was overwhelmingly positive and we soon saw other brands follow suit.
Paul Sellew, President and CEO of Little Leaf Farms: Yes, we used social media and old-fashioned direct communication with our customers. They understood that our product was not affected, as many of them had been to our facility and realized it had nothing in common with field-grown product.
Donald Grandmaison, Sales and Marketing Manager of léf Farms: After the FDA announced the recall, we received thousands of emails and phone calls. Many of the phone calls came to my phone, and I called every single person back.
We decided to issue a statement on Facebook that night. We received more than 1,000 likes and around 80,000 reaches, as well as several hundred comments. We got an immediate, positive response. We also posted a couple more times to confirm our message as the FDA narrowed down the recall down.
Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms: We did use it extensively and found it quite effective. The consumer responses were very positive. They were happy that there was a brand they could trust.
GG: Do you feel that with the persistent problems that are plaguing the produce industry due to numerous outbreaks in the past, particularly with conventional, field-grown products, this opens opportunities for controlled-environment produce growers that may not have been there before?
Puri: Yes, as consumers continue to demand more transparency in how and where their food is produced, I believe the demand for safe, clean greens grown in controlled environments will only continue to increase.
Sellew: Yes, it does. The consumers are getting fatigued with the constant food safety scares emanating from West Coast field-grown product.
Grandmaison: When these recalls happen, they make things real for those who are disconnected from where their food comes from and how it is produced. People take a step back and ask how things are produced. To me, that is where the opportunity lies, in having a better educated consumer.
Lightfoot: Retailers, when everything is equal, will defer to controlled-environment produce because of safety. I’m not sure what opportunities that will bring. The transition to locally grown, controlled-environment products from a long-distance supply chain is increasing because retailers are tired of the recalls – they’re expensive and distracting.
GG: Do you think consumers are willing to pay more for controlled environment produce if they know it is safe?
Sellew: Maybe. The market is competitive, and consumers are price conscious, so controlled-environment producers must be price competitive if they are going to capture market share.
Grandmaison: Considering our product is more expensive, yes, customers will pay more. You also have to look at the reason why consumers purchase product. We do several consumer events, and the top three reasons customers give is because they are looking for quality, freshness, and locally grown. Indoor products are also cleaner. There are no bugs and dirt to deal with. All those things contribute to why customers will pay more for products.
With lef Farms, people also pay more because our product is different. We go out of our way to create unique blends that consumers want. We try to give them a different experience.
Lightfoot: I know that we are trying to make it an easy choice for consumers here at Bright-Farms.
GG: How is your company involved with the new Controlled Environment Agriculture Food Safety Coalition?
Puri: We have joined the coalition and are very pleased with the leadership and collaboration being demonstrated by many of our industry peers.
Sellew: Yes, we were one of the founding members along with BrightFarms and Aerofarms.
Lightfoot: We are an enthusiastic founding member. I invited my competitors to join me to talk about a coalition because I think it will be good for the industry and consumers. Another point I would add is that the FDA has formed a romaine lettuce taskforce, which I am deeply involved with. It is doing a good job so far. I’m hopeful the FDA will make the changes needed for a safer industry without having to directly intervene.