For some Cen­tral Coast ro­maine farm­ers, E. coli scare is trou­bling mys­tery

The Tribune (SLO) (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY ROBIN ABCARIAN Robin Abcarian writes for The Los An­ge­les Times.

Cal­i­for­ni­ans know a lot – or think they do – about our Cen­tral Val­ley’s crops and their con­tro­ver­sies.

In our most re­cent drought, every­one be­came an in­stant “ex­pert” on the pros and cons of al­mond trees and their ir­ri­gation needs. Al­monds, ridicu­lously, be­came the scape­goat of the wa­ter short­age.

But peo­ple know a lot less about the farm op­er­a­tions of our Cen­tral Coast, the “salad bowl of Amer­ica,” where let­tuce and spinach flour­ish, along with the spe­cialty crops – arugula, es­ca­role, en­dive, bok choy, frisee, pars­ley, cilantro – that farm­ers in the Sali­nas Val­ley call “the chimichangas.” (You won’t find that def­i­ni­tion in any dic­tionary, by the way.)

Few city dwellers un­der­stand that grow­ers of leafy green veg­eta­bles di­vide their lives be­tween two places 500 miles apart.

They spend the spring and sum­mer grow­ing in cen­tral coastal Cal­i­for­nia — in Mon­terey, San Ben­ito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Bar­bara, Santa Cruz or Ven­tura coun­ties — where win­ters are too cold for leafy greens.

From about Thanks- giv­ing to Easter, like the snow­birds, they move south to Yuma, Ari­zona, the Im­pe­rial Val­ley or the Coachella Val­ley, where the sum­mers are too hot for let­tuce.

It’s not just the field hands who are mi­grant. En­tire grow­ing op­er­a­tions mi­grate, too. Around here, these mo­ments are sim­ply called “the tran­si­tion.”

“If you want to pro­vide prod­uct 52 weeks a year, you have to do it,” said Vanessa Quin­lan, hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor for Sa­bor Farms, a ma­jor grower of kale, “spring mix” bags of baby let­tuces, most of the leeks you see in pack­ages at Trader Joe’s and many afore­men­tioned “chimichangas.”

We met in her Sali­nas of­fice, where she looked sur­pris­ingly re­laxed for hav­ing just re­turned from Yuma af­ter over­see­ing a huge move in­volv­ing har­vest ma­chines, trac­tors, fork­lifts and peo­ple.

This year, an E. coli out­break, traced to ro­maine let­tuce that sick­ened hun­dreds, gen­er­ated head­lines that fell dur­ing the tran­si­tion.

It added an un­wel­come com­pli­ca­tion to an al­ready com­pli­cated sea­son. For many farm­ers, it brought back un­pleas­ant mem­o­ries of other E. coli out­breaks — the one last spring, also in­volv­ing ro­maine, that killed five peo­ple and sick­ened hun­dreds; and the great spinach catas­tro­phe of 2006, a dev­as­tat­ing, wa­ter­shed event for the in­dus­try.

Like so many grow­ers here, Quin­lan, who helped de­velop food safety pro­grams on her fa­ther’s farm in the Cen­tral Val­ley, was emo­tion­ally scarred by the events of 2006. Dur­ing that out­break, three peo­ple died and 205 peo­ple fell se­ri­ously ill, 100 of them with kid­ney fail­ure.

Even­tu­ally, fed­eral and state of­fi­cials traced the con­tam­i­na­tion to bags of Dole brand baby spinach from a farm in San Ben­ito County. The spinach was har­vested by a com­pany called Mis­sion Or­gan­ics, pro­cessed by Earth­bound Farm and then packed into Dole bags.

“The whole sit­u­a­tion was tragic, in­com­pre­hen­si­ble,” said Joe Pezzini of Ocean Mist Farms in Cas­tro­ville, which grows a lot of ro­maine. “To have some­one get sick from the food we are pro­duc­ing is dev­as­tat­ing. There had been out­breaks be­fore, but 2006 was a wake-up call. It pointed out how tied to­gether we all are. If one op­er­a­tion has a prob­lem, it af­fects every­one.”

As for what ex­actly hap­pened, there were only the­o­ries: A cat­tle op­er­a­tion was lo­cated less than a mile from the con­tam­i­nated spinach field; there were wild pigs near the fields and near the wells that served the fields. It was pos­si­ble that con­tam­i­nated sur­face wa­ter per­co­lated into the ground wa­ter sup­ply, but no one knew for sure.

It took years for spinach to re­cover.

In all like­li­hood, how­ever, ro­maine will re­cover quickly.

“It’s hard to imag­ine that restau­rants will not have cae­sar salad avail­able,” said Eric Schwartz, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the United Veg­etable Grow­ers Co­op­er­a­tive in Sali­nas.

Two days be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced that 33 peo­ple in a dozen states had be­come ill from eat­ing bac­te­ria-tainted ro­maine let­tuce, a num­ber that has since grown to 43. The agency warned con­sumers to stop eat­ing ro­maine.

“When the no­tice came down, we lit­er­ally pulled ro­maine off trucks,” Pezzini said. “In some cases, we took it back to the field and disked it back into the ground. Then we san­i­tized all the equip­ment.”

The hu­man cost in­cludes more than those who fell ill.

“Every­thing comes to a screech­ing halt,” Schwartz said. “There were a lot of peo­ple laid off.”

A few days af­ter the ini­tial no­tice, the feds an­nounced that the E. coli out­break had been traced to Cal­i­for­nia’s cen­tral coastal re­gions.

It feels like a sick trick of na­ture that the very foods we are urged to eat as part of a health­ful diet can make us sick or even kill us. Of course, E. coli does not come from ro­maine let­tuce. It comes from the guts of an­i­mals, and peo­ple, and if it ends up any­where near our sal­ads, a ter­ri­ble sys­temic fail­ure has oc­curred. But how? Some­times the mys­tery is never solved.

Since the 2006 spinach out­break, Pezzini and oth­ers have worked to tighten food safety stan­dards for grow­ers of leafy greens. The pro­duce is frag­ile, con­sumed raw and has a short shelf life. Other than triple-wash­ing, there are no “kill steps” like cook­ing or pas­teur­iza­tion.

“You are har­vest­ing leafy greens in the field, putting it in boxes and ship­ping to re­tail­ers,” said Scott Hors­fall, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Sacra­men­to­based Leafy Greens Mar­ket­ing Agree­ment, an in­dus­try group de­voted to im­prov­ing food safety.

From now on, he said, pro­duce will be la­beled by re­gion, so con­sumers and au­thor­i­ties can eas­ily iden­tify where let­tuce came from in case of fu­ture out­breaks.

Per­haps it’s a mea­sure of the con­fi­dence they feel in their in­dus­try’s safety prac­tices, but both Quin­lan and Schwartz told me they have not stopped eat­ing ro­maine.

“I wasn’t wor­ried about feed­ing it to my fam­ily,” Schwartz said. “Lit­er­ally mil­lions of bags are pro­duced a day. I have a bet­ter chance of get­ting hit by a car in my drive­way than get­ting sick.”

In fact, he said, at that very mo­ment, a three­p­ack of ro­maine was sit­ting in his fridge.

PAUL SAKUMA AP

A worker har­vests ro­maine in Sali­nas.

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