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F.ood & H.ealth : B.iological A.gents Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

Mystery grips Salinas
Sep 22, 2006, 14:17

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This story asks, what's gone wrong in the Salinas Valley? Are the bacteria coming from cutting knives tainted by bad soil? From wells? Cow pastures upwind? Or processing centers where lettuce and spinach are bagged? From the growers rethinking the way they plant, fertilize, water and harvest their crops, to the scientist-sleuths at the highest level of government, everyone is stumped.

Jack Guzewich with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was quoted as saying, "I don't think it's realistic to expect that we'll identify a single cause. I think it'll be a combination of things. But finding a proverbial smoking gun? I'd be surprised."

Red Spence, a forklift operator at a Salinas produce-cooling facility, was quoted as saying, "Everybody realizes this won't blow over quickly and could hurt us over the long term. Already people have lost work; it's just a few hours or a few days so far. But people here are anticipating the potential loss of jobs."

The story says that at an August conference looking into lettuce-borne outbreaks, "the consensus was that the culprit was farming, either water, workers' hygiene, flooding or animal contamination," said one shipper who attended the session but was afraid to have his name used because he's involved in litigation over a previous outbreak. "I said, guys, bagged vegetables seem to be the common denominator in all these outbreaks, but they didn't want to hear it. There's been flooding for 150 years into these farms, so what's new here? Putting lettuce into plastic bags."

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has credited the boom in spinach and lettuce sales to the advent in the early 1990s of pre-washed greens in sealed bags. California farmers sold $258 million of spinach last year alone, a huge jump from the $56 million sold in 1995, begging the question: Does the bagging trend that helped save this industry now threaten its existence? The question has yet to be answered, and so far federal health officials have limited the most recent warning to spinach only.

But there's no shortage of suspicion -- over the use of well water, over reclaimed water used for irrigation, even over flooding of the Santa Rita Creek into the Chinn Ranch, fields northwest of Salinas that were implicated in an earlier lettuce-related outbreak and that now grow produce not consumed by humans -- pumpkins -- instead of leafy greens.

For each suspected cause, there's a counterargument.
Growers say they're constantly fine-tuning the way they prepare the soil, irrigate, fertilize and harvest. Vegetable farmer John Baillie was cited as saying increased use of third-party auditors is crucial to stopping cross-contamination before it's too late, adding, "We do soil samples, tissue samples, samples of leaves. We're not just throwing seed in the ground and watering it. We're monitoring everything we do."

Baillie says he even washes his farm machinery "as I move from one ranch to the next to make sure I'm not taking weeds from one area into another."

The industry follows its own guidelines, called "Good Agricultural Practices," which include this section on "Guiding Principles for Crop Production Water":

"Identify potential sources of contamination that affect your water, especially those that are within your ability to control in a manner that will protect its quality."

Despite such voluntary guidelines, though, contamination of a crop from a neighboring cow pasture, for instance, seems a reasonable possibility when one takes a drive along Metz Road between Soledad and King City. Along this winding two-lane road, cattle graze just uphill from farms, and ditches take potentially manure-tainted rainwater through culverts directly into fields full of lettuce.

Salinas grower Dale Huss was cited as saying cattle near growing fields is a fact of farming life, adding,"But before we jump to conclusions, we need to look to science to find out what happened."

The story notes that foreman Octavio Felix watched his crew of 36 laborers use sharp knives to cut iceberg heads from their roots, passing them on to a conveyer belt where, in this case, they're immediately bagged in plastic for delivery to the store. He said workers were free to go to the portable toilets anytime they wished and that liquid sanitizer was nearby so they could wash their knives from time to time. The toilets were spartan, though not especially dirty, and there was soap available to wash up.

From the field, the greens are delivered by truck in large plastic or cardboard bins, either to a nearby processing plant where the leaves are turned into bagged spinach, lettuce or other salad mixes, or to a cooling facility.

Either way, this stretch of the journey involves dramatically less human contact with the greens than in the fields. Forklift driver Spence at the cooling plant points to boxes of greens being loaded into a "cooling tube" for 26 minutes and brought down to 32.5 degrees before they're stored temporarily in the "cold room." From there, the sealed boxes go into refrigerator trucks for transport to processing plants around the United States.

Critics suggest that a tainted lettuce plant could contaminate other produce once it's all mixed together in the washing bins. But packagers stand by their methods, insisting the process is safe as they monitor everything from pH levels to temperature to employee hygiene. But Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who has filed nearly 40 consumer lawsuits over the contaminated greens, thinks bagging the leaves may actually create a huge risk for an industry that doesn't want to hear it.

"They make so much money from packaging -- it's a $3- to $4- billion business annually just in packaged lettuce," Marler says. "But maybe the ultimate problem will be the way they process massive amounts of lettuce all commingled, vs. buying a head of lettuce that you wash and use to make your own damn salad."

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