E. Coli Linked to SBC Farm

The Grove
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– State officials have determined that spinach linked to last
fall’s nationwide E. coli outbreak was contaminated on a 50-acre
farm in San Benito County.
Hollister – State officials have determined that spinach linked to last fall’s nationwide E. coli outbreak was contaminated on a 50-acre farm in San Benito County.

Patti Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services, said Wednesday that the grower and location of the farm will not be identified until the state agency releases its report on the E. coli outbreak in a few weeks.

“We don’t want a ton of press descending on this farm at once,” Roberts said. “We’re not releasing the name yet in all fairness to the investigation and to put it into context.”

The contamination occurred in a field transitioning from conventional to organic farming practices, she said.

Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, who is representing 90 plaintiffs in a suit related to the E. coli outbreak, added Salinas grower Mission Organics to the defendants in his lawsuit on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Marler told the Free Lance he has known since November that the E. coli contamination occurred on land farmed by Mission Organics and leased from Paicines Ranch, and that the state agency’s investigation only confirmed that.

“It’s the worst-kept secret,” Marler said. “It was already evident, and once you say that it’s a 50-acre ranch, well, it is what it is.”

The Free Lance was unable reach a representative from Mission Organics on Wednesday.

According to Roberts, the Department of Health Services used DNA fingerprinting to trace the E. coli strain back to the field. Officials found samples of E. coli 0157:H7 in cattle feces, streams and wild pigs on the property.

Roberts emphasized that the discoveries do not rule out other sources of contamination.

“We can’t re-create what happened that day,” she said. “It’s like investigating a car crash three weeks later, and both the cars are gone.”

This is the first time the Department of Health Services has succeeded in tracing E. coli “back from fork to farm,” Roberts added.

Spinach packaged at San Juan Bautista-based Natural Selection Foods sickened approximately 200 people and killed three in fall of 2006.

The announcement that the contamination had been traced to a specific farm was made Tuesday afternoon in Sacramento during a joint hearing of the state Assembly and Senate agriculture committees. Before the hearing, health officials would only say that the contamination occurred in either San Benito or Monterey County.

“I’m very excited … that the focus has been narrowed,” said Richard Silva, vice president of the San Benito Farm Bureau.

Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has introduced a bill that would impose stricter standards on the leafy greens industry, standards that would be enforced by the Department of Health Services.

Spinach is one of San Benito County’s major crops. In 2005, it brought in $14.8 million, making it the county’s eighth-largest agricultural commodity.

As a result of the outbreak, 4.6 million pounds of local spinach went unsold last fall, and Natural Selection was forced to lay off 164 seasonal employees several weeks earlier than planned.

The leafy greens industry plans to implement its own voluntary marketing program on April 1. Under the program, processors will only accept spinach from growers who commit to farming and testing techniques developed by health experts and industry representatives.

Silva, who grows leafy greens, said those standards are still being finalized.

“The idea of a marketing agreement is to standardize our practices,” Silva said. “If we try to wait for legislation to come about, we would not be fulfilling the needs of our customers in a timely fashion.”

When asked if the marketing agreement would make further restrictions unnecessary, Silva said, “As growers, we’re receptive to whatever consumers want us to do.”

However, Farm Bureau President George Bonacich said legislation is a bad idea.

“Legislation only makes it harder,” he said. “Legislators don’t know farming.”

Bonacich may have an argument from state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-San Luis Obispo, whose District 15 includes portions of Santa Clara County. Maldonado is the son of immigrant farmworkers and is the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. As a young man Maldonado picked strawberries and now owns a 6,000-acre family farm.

The Department of Health Services supports safety measures from both the industry and the state, Roberts said.

“Our stance is that it isn’t a matter of picking and choosing,” she said.

Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, told the Free Lance on Wednesday that she is working on legislation to authorize more funding for safety research.

“It has become increasingly clear that there is an urgent need for research to help learn more about the causes of E. coli contamination and best practices to prevent future contamination,” said Caballero, whose district includes San Benito County. “We need to act quickly to protect the safety of our food supply and the strength of our local economy.”

Anthony Ha covers local government for the Free Lance. Reach him at 831-637-5566 ext. 330 or [email protected]

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