Image: Lab worker, spinach field
Hector Amezcua  /  Zuma Press
A lab worker selects samples of spinach to be tested for E. coli from a farm in California's Central Valley.
By contributor
updated 9/20/2006 8:38:04 PM ET 2006-09-21T00:38:04

Rarely has the Salinas Valley made the national news, let alone the front page.

The region has long played up its quiet role as the "Salad Bowl of the World," blessed as it is with fertile soil, California sunshine and mild weather that favors farming.

Those environmental advantages spawned a huge produce industry, with growers, packers, marketing agents and agricultural advisers working in a close-knit but also fiercely competitive community. Monterey County, in the heart of the valley, boasted farm sales of $3.3 billion last year.

Now it appears those competitive advantages have spawned outsized risks. In the latest case of produce-related food poisoning, deadly pathogens apparently traveled from the fertile valley  to supermarkets across the country, sickening at least 146 people in 23 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One person has died and 76 others have been hospitalized, some with kidney failure.

The best efforts of government authorities to pinpoint the source of the outbreak may yet be stymied, both because of the nature of the microbe and the way the industry is organized.

Natural Selection Foods, the company first linked to the outbreak, works with a vast network of partners, like many companies in the valley 100 miles south of San Francisco.

The company is best known for its organic Earthbound brand, but also has conventional produce lines. Plus the company processes greens for other companies, which means the microbe could have originated from any number of sources.

In addition to the produce grown on its 26,000-acre land base, Natural Selection contracts with independent growers and washes and bags salad greens for competing brands like Dole, which also grow or source their own crops.

From the complex stream of sources, produce ends up at a 205,000 square-foot plant in San Juan Bautista, Calif., or at one of four other plants around the nation.

Todd Koons, founder of nearby rival Epic Roots, said Natural Selection's plants "have among the best practices in the industry." So far none of the plants have been implicated as the source of the contamination.

In any case, "Finding the pathogen in a natural setting is extremely rare," said Professor Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, a microbiologist at the University of Minnesota who specializes in the deadly E. coli O157:H7 strain.

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Although the bacteria live in cattle, they can spread through manure in rainwater run-off, in irrigation lines, in packaging plants or through infected workers.

The microbe even can be spread by a farm worker who walks through a contaminated irrigation ditch and then into a field. There, it can exist in the soil for as long as 120 days.

"Once it contaminates produce, it is very hard to decontaminate," said Alejandro Castillo, a food safety specialist and microbiology professor at Texas A&M University. "It strongly attaches itself to the surface of the food."

Although cooling produce will keep the microbe from growing, it will not kill it. Washing is not effective either.

"If the produce is contaminated, the consumer cannot really do anything to prevent it, aside from cooking it," Castillo said. "The best way to reduce risk is to prevent contamination."

That is something the industry recognizes, which is why it is so desperate to find the source of the contagion and then get back to business.

"We've got to know how this happened, then consider all the options of what we can do, so it never happens again," said Kathy Means, vice president of government affairs at the Produce Marketing Association.

Natural Selections was started in 1984 by Drew and Myra Goodman — a couple who went into organic farming straight out of college and still own one-third of the company.

Another third is held by Mission Ranches, which runs the farming operations. Tanimura & Antle, a little-known company that is the largest lettuce producer in the nation, owns the remaining third.

As the organic food industry boomed, the Goodmans sought out these partners in conventional agriculture because they lacked enough farmland to meet demand. Mission Ranches and Tanimura & Antle wanted to get into the fast-growing organic market, so the partnership made sense.

The structure ensured that Natural Selection Foods had a stream of produce and quickly grew to be the No. 1 player in the organic produce business, with more than $360 million in sales.

Experts say organic farms are no more likely than conventional to be contaminated. In fact both organic and conventional farms use manure and compost to improve the soil.

And only organic farms are subject to government regulations over the specific use of manure and the manufacture of compost.

Under organic regulations, manure cannot be applied less than 90 days before the harvest of any food crop — or 120 days if the crop touches the soil. Compost made with manure must reach temperatures high enough to kill off pathogens, and these must be recorded daily.

"If you're making proper compost, you're going to kill the pathogens, there's no question about it," said Diez, the Minnesota professor.

Conventional growers follow voluntary guidelines rather than federal regulations.

Farmers and scientists said the likeliest source of contamination is livestock farms, because  E. coli is common in cows.

From livestock farms, the bacteria easily can spread by water, contaminating drinking water sources, rivers and streams. If it reaches a key produce production source, like the Salinas Valley, the whole nation is at risk.

"The irony is that all the states where people got ill could be growing their own spinach this time of year," said James Riddle, a former adviser to the Agriculture Department on organic food regulations.

Consumers may start asking, why aren't they?

Samuel Fromartz is author of 'Organic Inc: Natural Foods and How They Grew.'

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