In the three months since my last article and six months since the first report of the September, 2006, Monterey County spinach E. coli outbreak, not much apparently has been learned by government regulators, scientists and experts. Despite several California State Senate hearings attempting to fact-find and get information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the State Department of Agriculture and State Department of Health Safety, we basically end up with a lot of officials in suits shrugging their shoulders.
One thing they are pretty sure of however is that there will be another outbreak of E. coli in fresh leafy vegetables from the Salinas Valley in 2007. The fact that they are so sure that this event will occur and yet they have no idea of how it is occurring is a logic-leap that defies measurement.
I have written repeatedly and voluminously about the obvious smoking gun that exists by having 12,000 acres of vegetables – including leafy greens – overhead sprinkler irrigated with tertiary treated sewage water. I have gained the attention of food safety experts all over the nation who correspond with me and offer encouragement on keeping this information about pathogens in irrigation water in the foreground of our discussions. At the same time, virtually all of these experts have requested anonymity should their employers and financial benefactors become angry that they were consorting with someone who might reveal the secrets.
I started this article writing quest as a scientist interested in getting some rather obvious and yet important information to the media and public. I have found that there are many groups out there who do not want more sunshine on these facts.
Undaunted by this resistance, I will retrospectively review in this article the highlights of what has transpired these past three months. Let’s first establish some important “givens” in these discussions.
To begin, let’s remember that E. coli 0157:H7 is one of the disease and death causing pathogens that can survive and pass successfully through sewage treatment plants and “escape” into the natural environment. Secondly, these pathogens are incredibly hardy in the environment and have successfully lived for weeks and months on vegetation, soil surfaces and in water.
The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has stated that twenty-two pathogen outbreaks have been linked to California-grown leafy greens in the past 12 years, and at least nine of those were traced to Salinas Valley produce.
There is a definite time correlation between the initiation of Monterey County’s use of treated sewage water as an irrigation source and the huge increase in pathogen outbreaks with Salinas Valley vegetables. About 384 outbreaks linked to produce occurred in the six years between 1998 and 2004, which is about twice the 190 that happened in the 24 years from 1973 to 1997. This information was provided by Dr. Michael Lynch at this week’s FDA hearing in Oakland, California. Lynch is a doctor with the Foodborne and Diarrheal Disease Branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So in a period of six years there was a 200% increase in the number of pathogen outbreaks compared to the previous 24 years? I ask rhetorically, doesn’t that fact connote a problem? Isn’t it interesting that the year 1998, the beginning year of this 200% increase, is the same year that Monterey County initiated its sewage treated water irrigation program on 12,000 acres?
New Clarity in Connecting the Dots
In the press this week there were some important revelations. Because the food industry is continuing to play “hide the ball” with the facts, the interested public must pull pieces and bits of information together to get the whole story. In a Ventura County Star news article this week Len Richardson, editor of California Farmer Magazine was quoted raising several questions about the grower/food industry plan for voluntary self-regulation of leafy green vegetable production. Richardson said, “”At least they’re trying to come up with a plan, but it falls pretty short of being effective or scientific.”
Richardson then made a point I have stressed for these months by saying, “The new plan calls for the generic E. coli test, which is not nearly sufficient enough. You need the E. coli 0157:H7 test,” he said, adding “the cost of that test, considering how important it is, is not all that expensive.”
Richardson is pointing out that current regulations at the state and federal level do not require sewage treatment facilities or farmers to test for E. coli 0157:H7 so naturally, they don’t do it. When you read that the sewage treatment facilities are meeting federal or state standards it is because those standards are low and do not cover the pathogens infecting our populace in these outbreaks. What good, I ask rhetorically, is that assurance?
At the FDA hearing this week Dr. Lynch said, “outbreaks have definitely increased”. In this latest spinach outbreak, investigators collected about 850 environmental samples – including soil and water – but could not pinpoint the source of contamination in the spinach E. coli outbreak, said Barbara Cassens, of the FDA’s San Francisco District office.
Are the Innocent Being Blamed?
It was reported widely in the news these past weeks that “people involved in the investigation have said a pasture where the E. coli was located is in San Benito County, near fields of spinach grown by Mission Organics”. This 50-acre farm being so mysteriously referred to in the news is run by Otto Kramm, Mission Organics’ chief operating officer, and so far it’s the only field that has been publicly identified as a source of the specific strain of E. coli O157:H7 found among contaminated bags of spinach.
In an article by the Salinas Californian, Kramm was mystified as to why his farm was being isolated as the cause of the outbreak. Three other, unidentified ranches in San Benito and Monterey counties have been investigated and found to have strains of E. coli linked to the outbreak, federal and state health inspectors have repeatedly said. It was Kramm’s fields that caused FDA and state officials to triumphantly announce this winter that they had found cow pies and that wild pigs had somehow transported the E.coli from the cow pies to the spinach fields.
However, David Acheson, chief medical officer for food safety at the FDA, said last week that he doesn’t know exactly how the spinach became contaminated. “We can’t rule out the possibility the contaminated spinach came from more than one place,” Acheson said. Then he went on to confirm that the long promised FDA-State report on this outbreak was still a ways off from being made public. The news story said, “the FDA’s final report is due out soon, though Acheson said he didn’t know when”.
Meanwhile Mr. Kramm told the news reporter that evidence shows pigs headed south toward neighboring vineyards and likely never set foot on the parcel where his spinach was growing last August. “No tracks were found near spinach”. He went on to say, “pigs are drawn to those vineyards because they like to eat grapes, he said, and haven’t ever caused much damage to his crops. “I agree pigs ran through the ranch,” Kramm said, “but they didn’t run through the spinach field.”
So, the San Benito County resident farmer says that pigs didn’t do it and I believe him. (In spite of the ample opportunity here to come forth with “when pigs fly” humor, I will resist.) Let’s move on and look at some more of the bits and pieces of information revealed recently in the media.
It’s Going to Happen Again
Medical scientists have long known that the number of reported illnesses and even deaths attributed to E. coli 0157:H7 have been grossly underestimated and reported. This week at the FDA hearing some new light was shed on that issue. While it has been popularly reported that 200 cases of illness were reported in this outbreak, it turns out that the scientists consider the number to be far higher. Barbara Cassens said the spinach outbreak affected about 4,000 individuals although about 200 were ill enough to report their symptoms to physicians.
At the March 20 FDA hearing in Oakland, Dr. David Acheson said given the history of past food borne illness outbreaks, there are no guarantees that food safety efforts on farms and in processing facilities will prevent contamination of fresh produce in 2007. He said, “”Is the food supply any safer today than it was in September? No, I don’t believe it is. We are looking at a distinct probability of an outbreak linked to leafy greens in 2007,” he said. “I hope not, but I am a pragmatist. I would be fooling consumers if I said problems solved, don’t worry. Problem is not solved.”
That’s not good news for the rest of us but it is exactly what the FDA has been saying all along. That has to make us conclude that the FDA knows a lot more than they are revealing to the public.
Solution or Distraction?
Let’s take a look at news that just broke that is a good example of a distraction looking like a solution. In the March 22nd Sacramento Bee there was a story about UC Davis’ Dr. Trevor Suslow and his theory that the use of winery waste on farms, meant to prevent toxic outbreaks, may be doing the opposite.
The article pointed out that “Trevor Suslow, an authority on the region’s vegetable farming, said his suspicions grew from an experiment he conducted three years ago at the invitation of Salinas grower George Fontes.
According to the story, “State health investigators have implicated Fontes’ lettuce and spinach fields in three consecutive E. coli outbreaks.”
The article further stated. “Suslow found that the test plots Fontes treated with composted winery waste — a concentrate of grape skins, seeds and stems called pomace — consistently had the highest levels of bacteria compared with vegetable fields enriched with composted manure and those left untreated. “I felt (pomace) was a potential risk factor that needed to be looked at.” While none of the bacteria was of the deadly type — Escherichia coli 0157: H7 — Suslow suspects that the high residual sugars that make pomace especially good for plant growth also could promote growth of the toxin. E. coli 0157 doesn’t naturally occur in pomace. But it could be introduced to pomace in compost yards, which may include raw manure. The disease-causing microbe lives in the gut of cattle and other warm-blooded animals and is found in their feces.”
The Sacramento Bee said, “Fontes, president of Comgro Inc., said he has since improved safeguards against cross-contamination.” “We get better every year,” said Fontes, a fourth-generation farmer.
Then comes that “duh moment” when the Bee article says, “Suslow’s testing and observations underscore a key question that pops up ever louder with each new outbreak traced to “the nation’s salad bowl”: Is there something specific to the Salinas Valley environment or farming practices that boosts or sustains fecal bacteria?”
“Is there something specific” and unique to the Salinas Valley environment or farming practices that boosts or sustains fecal bacteria? Duh…
The answer, of course, is yes and it’s not winery pomace. Let’s go look at the 2003 San Mateo County retirement facility spinach outbreak report written by the California Department of Health Services. In that report you’ll find information about Chinn Ranch #8 with the grower identified as Comgro, Inc., Mr. Fontes’ company. That report points out that composted grape pomace was spread on the fields and quoted Mr. Fontes as providing that information.
What the State report also said and missing from any discussion so far is that the irrigation water used on these plants was from the Castroville Sea Water Intrusion Project (CSIP). In fact, the report identifies the CSIP turnout used as # 266.
So, now we know that UC Davis’ Trevor Suslow has identified a potential growing medium for E. coli 0157:H7 in winery pomace and we know it is used as a soil amendment in some parts of Salinas Valley. Suslow admitted in the article that he found no E. coli 0157:H7 in the pomace but what if he had a source that could supply E. coli 0157:H7 every time the sprinker irrigation system was turned on? That E. coli 0157:H7 flowing out of the sprinkler head would receive a nice welcome in the pomace I suppose.
The pomace could provide what microbiologists call a “nutrient” environment. That would allow the E. coli 0157:H7 to survive for very long periods even though we know that it can survive long periods on a vegetable leaf particularly if it is supported in a biofilm environment.
It’s Not the Animals, It’s the People
The one constant in all of this is not birds, pigs, rodents, cows or wine pomace. The one constant is that Monterey County irrigates 12,000 acres of vegetables with treated sewage effluent that scientists say can carry E. coli 0157:H7 as well as many other toxic and pathogenic materials. We can scientifically look high and low but at the end of the day the simple truth is that the “given” in this scientific review is that we are contaminating ourselves with our irrigation water, pure and simple.
Frank Pecarich retired from the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1987. During his 26 year federal career he worked as a soil scientist with the USDA on the now- published Soil Survey for Monterey County. He lives in Ventura County.
Related articles that have been published by the California Progress Report by Mr. Pecarich include:
E. coli: Why Monterey County Made a Poor Decision on the Type of Water to Use for Irrigation of Their Croplands