Food safety concerns remain
Spinach E. coli outbreak one year later
Deep in Capay Valley, on a certified-organic farm in the town of Guinda, 100 sheep stood in a patch of Sudan grass. Within about five days, the sheep would eat through this whole area, returning nutrients to the soil below. Although using sheep to fertilize a crop is an ancient agricultural practice that has been used for thousands of years, today in California it’s one that conventional farmers, or at least the major growers who set industry standards, strongly disapprove.
In fact, Full Belly Farm, located about 30 miles northwest of Woodland, employs several farming practices considered by some to be high risk. But for organic farmers, these “high risk” factors are actually biological farming methods that encourage wildlife and biodiversity, which they maintain lead to healthy soil and food.
“Our whole system is built around animals and working with nature,” said Judith Redmond, who co-owns the 250-acre farm, which has operated since the mid-1980s and grows corn, sweet potatoes, peppers, spinach, squash and more. They sell the produce in CSA boxes, at farmers’ markets and to area businesses, such as the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and The Waterboy restaurant in Midtown.
But Redmond and others worry about the fate of their farms. Concerns over food safety following last year’s spinach E. coli outbreak highlighted disagreements about tried-and-true traditional farming methods versus those borne of an industrialized agricultural system, leading some organic farmers to say they’re being asked to disregard environmental stewardship in favor of practices that may not even make food safer.
On September 14, 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak on spinach, which ended up sickening roughly 200 people and killing three. In response to the outbreak, big-time representatives of the leafy-greens industry—the Western Growers Association, California Farm Bureau Federation and United Fresh Produce Association—developed “Good Agricultural Practices” as part of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. Currently, the rules are voluntary, but already more than 100 handlers, shippers and buyers have signed on, promising to buy only from growers who meet the GAPs.
“It’s good to have a level playing field with everyone working from the same sheet of music,” said Paul Simonds of WGA.
Only one harvest season has passed, making it too early to determine the GAPs’ effectiveness, but food experts around the country vetted the rules prior to implementation and the rules will evolve as new science presents itself, Simonds said.
While the goal is to reduce the risk of food contamination, critics argued that the agreement created uniform growing standards without regard for cost to small farmers or the philosophy of organic growers.
“I could be paranoid and say they’re trying to shut down the small or organic farmers,” Redmond said. “But I think it’s more that they really don’t know what to do.”
E. coli bacteria travels in manure, entering fields through livestock, wildlife, birds and water. This particular strand of highly toxic E. coli didn’t develop until the 1980s, and scientists believe it evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle—animals moved off grazing land and placed into concentrated animal-feeding operations, where they eat a specialized diet in preparation for slaughter.
According to the USDA, bagged salad is especially prone to contamination because of the centralized system used to process and pack this produce. Because only a handful of companies control the packaged leafy greens retail market, produce may be supplied from hundreds of farms, but it’s all trucked to a plant where leaves are chopped, washed and bagged together, meaning microbes from one contaminated field can harm a whole lot more.
California’s fresh-produce industry took a proactive approach in attempting to mitigate future outbreaks through its marketing agreement. The recommendations that workers be trained in food safety and water systems pumped for use as field irrigation be tested for E. coli, ring true for both organic and conventional farmers. But other rules stand in stark contrast to longstanding, proven methods used at Full Belly Farm. On this farm, a garden of native flowers and herbs provides habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects. But under the GAPs, this garden would be gone. The owners would be required to build fences to exclude terrestrial animals, set bait for hawks and tear out grass buffers they planted to prevent water run-off from flowing down into crops from nearby hills where cattle graze, to create sterile environments. However, biological farming, Redmond said, encourages diverse soils where food-contaminating pathogens must compete with other microbes, making them less likely to survive.
“We want to do a better and better job with the system we believe in,” she said.
As for manure, the guilty party behind E. coli, certified-organic farmers are prohibited from spreading raw manure at least 90 days before the harvest of crops grown for human consumption and must adhere to strict guidelines for proper composting methods, according to an Organic Trade Association fact sheet.
Full Belly Farm has also begun performing regular water testing. Farmers pump from seven irrigation wells and from Cache Creek, which runs through the property. They test for E. coli because public agencies in Yolo County do not. Redmond drives all the way to Woodland to drop off samples.
“We want to know,” she said. “It’s a public-health issue and our public agencies aren’t protecting us.”
Refusal to test may boil down to a single question: What happens if a test comes back positive? However, after last year’s outbreak, Max Stevenson, water resources associate with the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Ag Commissioner Rick Landon and several local fresh-produce growers looked into the possibility of testing for E. coli and decided it made more sense for the end user to bare this responsibility. It’s difficult to test bulk water, he said, and even if they did, water could easily test clean one day and become contaminated the following day.
“I think everyone shares the responsibility, but it’s impractical for us. We don’t have the ability to do that type of testing,” Stevenson said.
While the consensus may be that addressing food safety issues presents an overwhelming endeavor, smaller players will likely be most affected if forced to implement changes they can’t afford, don’t know how to do or simply refuse to do out of loyalty to sustainable farming practices.
Perhaps a larger concern, opponents said, is that ultimately the agreement fails to address the root cause of food-borne outbreaks in this country. The reservoir for E. coli sits primarily in the gut of cattle. And the likelihood that contaminated food from a single farm will lead to a widespread outbreak is a result of our modern industrial system. But instead of investigating how adjusting the diet of cattle or decentralizing food processing could alleviate the vulnerability of our food supply, we accommodate the very systems that may harm us.