It was one year ago Friday that the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers around the country not to eat fresh spinach because it might be contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The outbreak was eventually traced to a ranch near Salinas, California -- but not before three people died and about 200 were sickened. Over the last year California’s farm industry has created a new voluntary inspection program. But critics say it’s not enough. Ben Adler travelled to the Salinas Valley – a region known as the Salad Bowl of America. And in the first of a 2-part series, he reports on the industry’s efforts to make produce safe.
THIS STORY IS THE FIRST OF TWO PARTS
It’s about 9 o’clock on a fresh, September morning. The fog’s just rolling back from the Salinas Valley to the western hills. And Mike Brown is trekking through some pretty thick mud on the edge of a lettuce field south of Salinas.
Brown’s an auditor with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. And he’s looking at some paw-prints alongside the freshly irrigated field.
“Here’s those tracks that I picked up.”
Brown says they look like dog tracks – a family living nearby has a dog in its yard – but he’s not sure. They could be from a fox or coyote.
“I don’t see any footprints going into the field so I’m just gonna take a GPS reading from here and note that there was animal tracks.”
These field audits are staples of a new industry-backed program designed to minimize future outbreaks. Leafy greens handlers – or companies that send the product to market – sign up for the voluntary program. They agree to keep an eye on their growers … and make sure they follow industry-written food safety measures.
“We always look at each well or water source on the property, on the ranch.”
Auditors like Brown and this one, Gordon Poulson actually walk through fields on Harvest Day to follow up. They’re looking for farm workers who aren’t being safe, holes in fences, and other red flags. But they don’t test water samples, or take lettuce leaves back to the lab. The handler hires an independent testing company to do all that … then shows the results to the auditors. If a handler fails an audit, the entire industry will know – and the company won’t find buyers for their product.
Today, about a dozen workers are harvesting romaine lettuce. The handler’s Production Manager, Lee Papazian stands with auditor Gordon Poulson at the edge of a nearby reservoir used for irrigation.
Papazian: “If we saw animal tracks here, we’d pull a test before we even watered it again.”
Poulson: “And to me, that’s an example that this program is working, in my opinion. Truly is. You see the reaction that the growers take, the companies take. They don’t have to be told to do anything; they’re out there trying to do it on their own to make this product safer, as safe as it can be.”
Of course, not everyone agrees.
“Unfortunately, the only test of this system really working is somebody getting sick, someone unfortunately dying.”
State Senator Dean Florez represents part of California’s Central Valley.
“And then people are going to say, well, the experiment didn’t work. But at what cost? I mean, who died? How many people got sick? How many infants were injured?”
Florez has strongly criticized the industry ever since last year’s spinach outbreak. He does NOT think a voluntary system will catch all contamination. Instead, he wants to require every grower to follow a stronger set of food safety standards. But his package of bills has stalled in the California legislature … and he says he’s worried.
“Until people get sick for the 23rd outbreak, we’re gonna continue to operate on a voluntary basis.”
But David Acheson’s a pragmatist. He’s the FDA’s point man on food safety, and he knows it’s impossible to eliminate foodborne illness completely. He says the FD has no plans for increased regulation, Still, he says, the industry’s on the right track.
“Do I believe that the leafy greens supply is a little safer than it was a year ago? Yeah, I think it probably is. Is it as safe as I would like it to be or the agency would like it to be? No, it probably isn’t.”
Which for now, Acheson says, is about all that’s scientifically possible.