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E. Coli Threat to Leafy Greens Demands More Safety Regulations, Research

Jan 7, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Several years ago, the Dole Fresh Bagged Spinach E. coli outbreak highlighted the difficulty of keeping the food borne pathogen out of fresh produce.    Since then, the growers of leafy greens in California have taken steps to keep their crops safe from E. coli contamination.   But despite the danger E. coli can present to consumers,  federal regulators have, for the most part, allowed growers  to self-regulate.   Many question whether or not  steps the industry voluntarily takes will be enough to prevent another leafy green E. coli outbreak in the future.

In September 2006, bagged fresh baby spinach sold by the Dole Food Company was linked to an E. coli outbreak that was blamed for the deaths of three people and illness in 200 others. Health officials traced the source of that E. coli contamination to a cattle ranch adjacent to the California field where the spinach was grown. It is believed that runoff from the ranch that was contaminated with cattle feces made its way into the spinach field.  Since then, several other recalls of E. coli contaminated lettuce and other greens have made headlines.

Recently growers and processors in California’s Central Valley formed a safety group, and 118 companies have signed on to the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement. Safety precautions covered by the agreement include testing the water supply monthly for E. coli and keeping animals off farmland.  But signing onto that agreement is strictly voluntary, although once growers do sign on, they are legally bound to adhere to the standards. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering implementing a national version of those industry-developed standards that followed the E. coli outbreak and now govern California farmers and leafy green handlers.  While the USDA is weighing both voluntary and mandatory standards, it has been reported that the agency favors a voluntary program that allows flexibility.

But many consumer advocates are saying that whether they are voluntary or mandatory, the new leafy green standards are inadequate.  While the new standards could reduce the risk of runoff from cattle pastures contaminating fields with E. coli, they do little to address the risk of E. coli from deer, pigs, birds, rodents and garden slugs.   What’s worse, very little research is being done to determine how likely these other potential E. coli sources might be to contaminate fields. Research is needed to perform quantitative risk assessments, to prioritize the actual risks and to devote the necessary resources to minimize or eliminate them.  While some of this work is being done -- The Center for Produce Safety at the  University of California  Davis was recently formed with industry and government money to better understand E. coli risks – much more research in this area is needed.


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