Salmonella in Hydroponic Lettuce Shows Challenges in Food Tech

first major inquiry into hydroponic foodborne illness concludes

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Hydroponic gardening is a substitute for growing plants in soil. First developed in the 1930s, it involves placing plants in a medium and feeding their roots directly. A salmonella outbreak shows it’s a work in progress, though.

lettuce in hydroponic farm
Plants grown in hydroponic greenhouses, such as lettuce, do not require soil but have higher production costs. Photo by senee sriyota / Shutterstock

Hydroponic produce has gained an increasingly large following in recent decades. Plants whose roots are bathed in nutrient-enhanced rainwater—and without so much as a speck of soil—are grown indoors and close to consumers’ homes rather than in far-off farmland, providing unprecedented freshness and safety. However, a recent salmonella outbreak at a hydroponic greenhouse in Illinois, linked to a mishandling of water, has shown that the process isn’t foolproof.

Hydroponic farming is one of several emerging food technologies with exciting potential. In his video series Food: A Cultural Culinary History, Dr. Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific, explains some of the food tech currently in development.

Hydroponic Farming

“[Hydroponic farming] was developed a long time ago, in the 1930s, and, of course, it became a fad in the 1970s, but it’s getting a lot more sophisticated now,” Dr. Albala said. “The idea is that instead of using soil, you set the plants into a medium and you feed all of its nutrients and the water directly, and it’s just recycled. You put it inside so you don’t have to worry about insects or pests, and you seal the greenhouse off.”

This particular kind of farming comes with a number of benefits. As Dr. Albala said, it removes much of the risks associated with pests and other insects. It also requires far less physical space, opening the door for vertical farming, or growing crops in vertically stacked layers as opposed to laid-out rows. Hydroponic farming can even be done underground with artificial light, if necessary.

This also means hydroponic crops can be grown in any season.

So what’s the catch?

“The problem, at least so far—every time I go into the supermarket, I see them—[is that] they’re very expensive, and they don’t actually taste like anything,” Dr. Albala said. “I think soil might have something to do with flavor. A related approach pioneered in the 1980s is called aeroponics, and instead it uses a kind of constant mist of nutrients in the air, and that has advantages for plants that can’t withstand being immersed in water.”

Eat This; It’s Prescription

Dr. Albala said that one food technology that shows potential, though it has sadly been overpromised by some food manufacturers, is that of nutraceuticals, which are foods that act nutritionally and pharmaceutically.

“It could be for anything: fighting off cancer, reducing weight, preventing disease,” he said. “So far, these have basically just been, I think to some extent, marketing ploys—ways to sell old foods in new ways, or incorporate them into other processed foods. But I can imagine that with increased scientific understanding of foods and human health, we’ll be able to replace broad and fairly vague guidelines with methods of identifying a lot more specifically what each individual needs to eat for optimal health.”

According to Dr. Albala, this idea will likely continue to be a mixed bag. Fads and snake oil salesmen will likely continue to promise the Moon but fall short of expectations, but the power of science to transform our foods and how we prepare them should also keep increasing.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily