Fields of safe greens

Let us talk lettuce. The California greens that fill our supermarkets year-round with whole heads of lettuce, from Boston to romaine, and all those bags and clamshells of colourful salad mixes from Dole, Earthbound, Fresh Express and more.

Having walked through the Salinas Valley recently with fellow Canadian journalists and watched just-harvested greens being chopped, tossed, triple-washed and bagged into  salads, I can safely say these delicate greens are treated with kid gloves.

In the valley, America’s salad bowl, flat fields stretch to beige hills on both sides of the road.

Near Watsonville, red strawberries dangle from rows of green leaves growing through black plastic. The same berries soon to be captured in clamshells and loaded on a truck to TO.

And aren’t those tall tousled bushes artichoke plants? Their green globes must be ready to eat – there’s a line of guys with red bags on their backs heading out to harvest them and signs appear for deep-fried artichokes, a local specialty.

As we drive up to a modest yellow house in a hilly area of fields and forest, a spry old guy with a cowboy hat and a twinkle in his eye comes out to greet us. Rod Faurot, 84,  looks like he’ll be walking the hills of his specialty vegetable farm for years to come.

Before we visit his fields of greens – ribbons of baby leaves and heads of lettuce in every shade of green and red – Faurot and his right-hand man and co-owner, Arturo Sanchez, pull out thick binders of pre-harvest reports and food safety training manuals that govern everything that happens in their fields, as mandated by California’s Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

LGMA was set up after a 2006 outbreak of e-coli bacteria traced to spinach killed five people and sickened several hundred more.

It’s taken years for the industry to recover from the horror of people dying from what should be a healthy product, and there have been other recalls since.

LGMA says 56% of Canadian consumers still worry about the safety of raw greens, and it’s working hard to dispel those fears.

All California leafy greens sold in Canada must come from an LGMA-certified grower. On the farm, everyone from company owners down to the Mexican hired last week follows the same food safety protocols.

Fields are inspected a week before harvest, then just before workers head out, which could be at midnight or early in the morning before the sun gets too fierce. If there’s any sign of a dead animal, tracks, nibbled leaves or poop, whether from mice, birds or deer, the area is cordoned off and the crew moves to another field.

It was embarrassing to hear what a mess Canada geese can make when they land in a lettuce field.

Workers have their own rules. Hair nets are required on some farms, knives are disinfected after use and there’s no spitting, no eating in the fields and no liquids allowed except water.

A cut finger is dressed with a bandaid embedded with a strip of metal. If the bandaid falls off, it will be caught by a metal detector along the way.

Farms are audited by USDA-trained inspectors, sometimes by appointment, sometimes by surprise. Wells and other water sources are tested regularly.

At Braga Farms in Soledad, our second stop, we hand over our jewelry before stepping into the field to watch workers trimming heads of dark green romaine.

Trimmed hearts are passed to gloved workers on a flatbed truck, who place three heads in a zipper bag, heat-seal the ends and apply a best-before sticker. More workers place bags in boxes and pile them on a trailer.

It takes two hours to load 600 boxes of romaine, 12 bags to box, said Rod Braga, third-generation owner of this 1,500-acre family farm, which packs for other companies and under its own ASA Organics label.

Unlike bagged salads, these romaine hearts, along with bagged whole lettuce, are not washed before packing. Check the bag and you’ll find clear instructions to wash before serving.

In another field, rows of baby greens are being harvested by a giant lawn mower. A blast of air brings the cut greens into the machine and shoots them up to the wagon tethered alongside, where workers capture the leaves in plastic-lined bins.

As it runs up and down the fields, Braga says the harvester emits sonar to drive any rodents out of the way of the whirling blades.

Keeping out animals and local joggers is a never-ending battle, he says, even though he has surrounded his fields with black silk netting five feet high.

Braga also showed us his organic broccoli fields, the blue-green rows interspersed with dozens of colourful flowers to attract good bugs. If this is factory farming, I’m lovin’ it!

Last stop, the nearby Dole Fresh Vegetables processing plant in Soledad, where Tom Mack is charged with keeping a million pounds of salad greens cool, clean, fresh and safe every day.

The greens arrive straight from the field in boxes lined with plastic and are immediately cooled to 4C, he said.

As we look down through glass windows at the giant plant, lettuce is being chopped by rotating blades.

The cut lettuce heads down a conveyor belt, where it meets an east-west line of sliced carrots and red cabbage. Workers in smocks, hair nets, gloves and helmets shovel fresh-cut radish circles onto yet another line to create a riot of colour.

The factory is divided into three sections to separate the raw product from the finished bags. Even the air is filtered, Mack said.

The greens are washed to remove any dirt, then pushed into a second wash tank spiked with chlorine. A third wash ensures it’s squeaky clean. The clean greens are then pushed into giant colanders and manoeuvered into industrial-strength salad spinners four feet high to dry.

Like other processors of fresh produce, Dole also adheres to strict traceability standards.

“If you give me a bag with a lot code,” he said, “within an hour I can tell you where every bag went and tell you the source of the lettuce, down to which block in the field it came from,” Mack said.

Pick up any bag or clamshell of cut salad and you’ll see words like pre-washed or triple-washed. Though Mack would never discourage customers from washing his greens at home, his entire plant is probably cleaner than your bacteria-laden sink.

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