Tuesday, June 12, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Iceberg is your father’s lettuce: A big, round ball wrapped in cellophane and ready to be torn apart to top a burger or smothered under thick salad dressing.

It remains the nation’s dominant lettuce, but consumers, chefs and nutritionists are increasingly giving it the cold shoulder as more varied salad greens — such as romaine, arugula and mache — sprout on supermarket shelves.

Faster shipping, better packing and a growing taste for nutrients have allowed other greens to eat into its market.

To lure back buyers, one company is launching an out-of-left-field effort that links iceberg lettuce to baseball and Father’s Day.

Salinas Valley-based Tanimura & Antle — the nation’s largest lettuce supplier — is packaging its iceberg lettuce this week in plastic patterned with baseball stitching.

The family-owned grower is also supplying recipes for “wedge salads,” a retro steakhouse staple built around a thick slice of iceberg lettuce, on baseball-card motif labels on the wrappers.

Grocers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Supervalu Inc.’s Albertsons, Shaw’s and Jewel-Osco will be supplied with signs and banners promoting what the company hopes will become an annual link between iceberg lettuce and Father’s Day.

Phil Lempert, a produce-industry analyst who edits the Supermarket Guru Web site, www.supermarketguru.com, is skeptical about the connection.

“I can imagine if a lot of kids are bringing their fathers a head of lettuce for Father’s Day, they’re not going to be very happy,” he said.

But reversing iceberg lettuce’s slide is no easy task.

“Iceberg lettuce has no taste,” shopper Greg Matthew, 31, said as he picked up a container of mixed organic baby greens, chard and radicchio at a supermarket in Los Angeles. “I prefer something that has flavor.”

In 2006, 174,600 acres of iceberg lettuce were harvested in the United States, down from 198,500 acres in 1998, the first year for which U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics were available.

During the same period, the amount of harvested romaine lettuce increased from 36,450 acres to 61,000 acres. Green and red leaf lettuce harvests increased from 46,220 acres to 71,100 acres.

“It’s the fundamental factors in life that people are looking for things that are more convenient and things that are more nutritionally dense,” said Jim Prevor, editor of Produce Business magazine.

Iceberg lettuce got its name from the ice-filled train cars in which it was shipped by California growers a century ago, said Tim Chelling, spokesman for Western Growers, which represents the California and Arizona produce industries.

Iceberg was the only variety of lettuce hearty enough to survive the trip without being damaged by the ice, he said. More delicate greens were consumed closer to the farms where they were grown.

These days, refrigerated trucks and other transportation can preserve those greens. Companies have even started removing oxygen and adding nitrogen to bags of mixed greens to prolong freshness.

Consumers are discovering that greener lettuces are healthier — and often better tasting — than pale spheres of iceberg, Mr. Lempert said.

Romaine lettuce, for example, has six times as much vitamin C as iceberg and is richer in most other vitamins and minerals, as well as having higher protein and fiber value, according to Texas A&M University figures.

“Today, we want more nutrients, we want better flavor, we want more taste,” Mr. Lempert said.

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