Local company's indoor growing system could be solution to safer romaine and other lettuce

    Local company's indoor growing system could be solution to safer Romaine and other lettuce. (WLUK/Amanda Becker)<p>{/p}<p>{/p}

    FOX CROSSING, Wis. (WLUK) -- The FDA and Center for Disease Control warned people this past week not to eat romaine lettuce due to a dangerous strain of E. Coli.

    • The CDC estimates that E. coli, also referred to as STEC, causes 3,600 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in the US each year.
    • This past summer an outbreak caused 5 deaths.
    • The CDC has reported outbreaks of E. Coli, in various leafy green vegetables alone, 7 out of the last 12 years.

    The latest scare came just before Thanksgiving and the busiest day of the year for many grocers.

    While many businesses were clearing their shelves of romaine lettuce, it was the customers clearing the shelves at the Free Market in Appleton.

    “People snatched it all up. They've been saying this is the only place they can find it,” said Kyra Evers, a Free Market associate.

    On Sunday, just one bag of mixed greens remained, but the store doesn't have far to go for more. The produce travels just two miles from the Fox Valley Hydro Farm to here. It's not your conventional farm, instead a vertical hydroponic system indoors.

    “If we had an acre of these systems we could grow roughly 100 acres of conventional farming,” said Steve Main, the owner of Fox Valley Hydro Farm.

    He grows and distributes leafy greens -- mainly lettuce -- to local businesses and at farmers' markets.

    Local company's indoor growing system could be solution to safer Romaine and other lettuce. (WLUK/ Amanda Becker)

    Fork Farms is the Appleton tech company that designs and builds the system.

    ”We are able to control the environment here so not only can we control the growth rates and the success of the plant but we can also control the food safety really carefully,” said Alex Tyink, president of Fork Farms.

    Safety is what’s on the mind of shoppers when buying lettuce these days.

    “The E. coli outbreak is really scary,” said Tyink.

    Tyink says growing indoors, and locally, lowers the chances of bacterial growth.

    “Those crops are coming from very large-scale farms, usually in Arizona and California, and it’s where we get majority of our produce right now in the United States,” said Tyink. “Farms like that, they grow outdoors, primarily.”

    He lists human contact, travel time, well water and environmental conditions as all having negative effects on crops.

    “That product being at such a large scale has to go through a lot of different steps in the supply chain in order to get here -- and every one of those steps is an opportunity for pathogens to get into the food,” he said.

    Steps that he says are eliminated with this hydroponic process.

    “Some of those unknowns, we can really tightly control here,” he said.

    From "indoor farm" to table.

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