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Growers Modify Practices to Prevent E. Coli Outbreaks

November 22, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: In California’s Salinas Valley, spinach is being harvested again, after an outbreak of a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria that killed three people and made more than 200 sick across the country.

But the impact of that scare on produce-growers in this lush valley, 100 miles south of San Francisco, remains, as they struggle to recover from economic loses and figure out ways to prevent more outbreaks. Their backs against the wall, growers also must convince consumers that spinach is safe to eat.

The crop is a major component of 85 separate vegetables grown in what’s called the nation’s salad bowl, a $3-billion-a-year industry. Joseph Pezzini is chairman of the local Growers-Shippers Association and an executive at Ocean Mist Growers.

JOSEPH PEZZINI, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California: We’re down to 30 percent or 40 percent of what normally we’d be selling this time of year for spinach. But it’s also had an effect on all the bagged products and some of the other lettuce products. I mean, it’s rocked the produce industry. This is very serious.

SPENCER MICHELS: Within a few days of the outbreak, state and federal investigators were in the field trying to track the source of the bacteria, checking processing plant records, fields, rivers and nearby cattle ranches.

Samples were brought back to this California state lab in Richmond, where manure and other specimens were, and still are, being tested for E. coli. The bacteria is extremely prevalent in nature, especially in the intestines of mammals. Out of thousands of strains, about 100 are considered toxic.

Kevin Riley ran the investigation for the state.

KEVIN RILEY, California Department of Health Services: We actually had it narrowed down to nine farms or ranches that could have supplied this product within about a week to nine days time. That was very fast.

Tracing the source of E. coli

SPENCER MICHELS: Twenty times over the last decade, E. coli has shown up on leafy greens, and nine cases have been traced to the Salinas Valley. But this time, the investigation went further: Newer technology now exists, allowing scientists to match the contaminated spinach with bacteria found on one specific ranch.

KEVIN RILEY: What we have found on this one ranch is positives out of cattle feces, out of wild boar feces, as well, and finally there's a water source. There's a small stream on the property that we take specimens out of that stream and found it positive.

SPENCER MICHELS: The state lab director, Paul Kimsey, said a nationwide database of food-borne illness outbreaks made fast action possible, and improved techniques led scientists to the ranch where the deadly strain of E. coli was found.

PAUL KIMSEY, California Public Health Lab Director: On this plate here, we have -- this green, metallic sheen is E. coli, let's say cow feces or from a water sample.

SPENCER MICHELS: The strain was isolated and colonies of it were grown and genetically fingerprinted.

PAUL KIMSEY: This is a very big deal. This is the first time we've actually been able to connect all of the dots nationwide and back to the actual source of the contamination. Everybody was very excited. I was even told that there was dancing in the hallway.

SPENCER MICHELS: But for growers and processors, it was a shock. Bags of E. coli-laced spinach that caused the illnesses were traced to Natural Selection-Earthbound Farms, a Salinas Valley produce processor that had well-established procedures for checking its food and a good reputation for safety, according to chief operating officer Charles Sweat.

CHARLES SWEAT, Natural Selection Foods: For 22 years, we've been in the business of providing washed, ready-to-eat salads with no food-borne illnesses. Our standards were at the top of the industry, and we were complying with those standards every day. So what we had to realize was that those standards may not be enough to prevent something from getting through our system.

The regulation process for produce

SPENCER MICHELS: In the last month, Natural Selection has instituted new stringent safety procedures, including increased water testing for E. coli and salmonella. But executives know that may not be enough.

CHARLES SWEAT: You know, you see things a lot differently now after the last six weeks. Now, I would tell you that we're in very much favor of supporting any kind of regulations that raises the standards for food safety.

SPENCER MICHELS: Unlike meat, where slaughterhouses are inspected continuously by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for signs of E. coli and other bacteria, produce is hardly inspected or regulated at all until there is a crisis. That's one complaint voiced by some consumer advocates, including Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL, Center for Science in the Public Interest: There's really no agency that's in charge of food safety on the farm. USDA inspects meat and poultry plants; FDA is supposed to inspect everything else. But the reality is the Food and Drug Administration doesn't really have the staff or the budget to go onto the farm.

SPENCER MICHELS: One California county alone produced 120,000 tons of spinach last year, said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer at the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

DR. DAVID ACHESON, FDA Center for Food Safety: How many spinach leaves would you need to collect on a given day, from what field, on what farm, at what time of the year, to increase the chances that you would find something that you could do something about?

SPENCER MICHELS: Instead, he says, the FDA steps in when there is a problem.

DR. DAVID ACHESON: When something happens that threatens the safety or the security of the food supply in the United States, FDA shifts resources to deal with it.

Voluntary guidelines

SPENCER MICHELS: One obvious fix would be to regulate or move cattle ranches that are near produce fields, but that may not be practical, either. In fact, according to the president of the Monterey County Cattlemen's Association, the subject has never come up.

SCOTT VIOLINI, Monterey County Cattlemen's Association: We've been farming and ranching in the Salinas Valley for well over 100 years, and nothing like this has ever happened before.

SPENCER MICHELS: Cattle manure getting onto somebody's crops. I mean, does anybody inspect? Do you have any rules that you follow, or is it just common sense or what?

SCOTT VIOLINI: There are no -- to my knowledge, there's no regulations set in place.

SPENCER MICHELS: As for growing produce, companies like Ocean Mist subscribe to what are called "good agricultural practices," voluntary guidelines that they enforce themselves to ensure a safe crop.

JOSEPH PEZZINI: You know the history of the land, that the land hasn't been contaminated in some sort of way. You know the inputs of water, so you know that the water is of appropriate quality to irrigate a crop with. It's not contaminated.

Good agricultural practices are voluntary. They're guidelines that the FDA came out in 1998, but there isn't a mechanism necessarily to ensure 100 percent compliance.

SPENCER MICHELS: Consumer advocates think voluntary standards just don't cut it, and even growers who three months ago would have argued they were doing all they could -- cleaning equipment, testing water, checking processing plants, keeping workers clean -- are willing to go along with regulations.

JOSEPH PEZZINI: And so if we need to have a verification through the government, then, you know, we're willing to work on that.

Possible future regulation

SPENCER MICHELS: But the FDA is reluctant to write new regulations so soon after the outbreak.

DR. DAVID ACHESON: We don't want to put the cart before the horse here and say, "Oh, yes, we need a regulation for this, this, this, this and this," without really understanding where the problems are. Similarly, just writing a new rule without being able to enforce it properly doesn't solve the problem.

SPENCER MICHELS: Solving the problem would be much easier if people bought locally grown produce rather than food processed by giant plants, according to food writer and professor Michael Pollan.

MICHAEL POLLAN, Food Writer: Maybe we don't want to wash the nation's entire salad in the same sink. Maybe we don't want to grind all the nation's hamburgers in one grinding machine. There is an opportunity for bacteria that may have just started in one place, one plant, one little point somewhere out in America to infect everybody's food.

SPENCER MICHELS: Downsizing and decentralizing the food industry doesn't seem likely, so Caroline DeWaal wants a super-agency that can oversee all aspects of food safety.

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: There should be one federal agency assigned to work on food safety, really from farm to table.

SPENCER MICHELS: On the federal level, a bill has been introduced in Congress to create just such a super-agency, which would increase food inspections. In California, hearings have already been held following the E. coli outbreak, with an eye towards state regulation and enforcement.

DEAN FLOREZ (D), State Senator: Maybe the industries need to tighten the safety standards in a way that we in government can hold them accountable to.

SPENCER MICHELS: And at the University of California at Davis, scientists are trying to learn more about the bacteria: how it behaves in heat or while being transported; the effects of bagging it; how long it lives in water or soil; why cattle release it at certain times of the year.

The answers, along with safety steps under way, may never eliminate the E. coli bacteria, but they could reduce the likelihood of another deadly outbreak.