Killer Spinach

When industrial agriculture goes bad


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Perhaps you, too, were slightly confused by the recent spinach debacle. We are unfortunately accustomed to hearing about Escherichia coli in ground beef and other meat products; after all, the bacteria live in the digestive tract of the animals that become meat products. It is reasonable enough, if distasteful, to connect the dots between cow manure and beef. But how did E. coli get into bagged spinach?

The news might have been easier to understand if the organics-bashers had been right in blaming the contaminated spinach on manure-fertilized organic fields. Again, the dot-to-dot logic would not have been hard to follow. The organics, however, have been exonerated and the blame laid squarely at the feet – and on the fields – of conventional growers. It seems that pastureland surrounding the two Salinas Valley fields where the spinach was grown has been found to be contaminated with the same strain of E. coli that caused the outbreak.

This raises two questions. First, how does contaminated water get onto the fields? Second, how does the produce from four fields come to infect more than 200 people, killing three, in 26 states and in one Canadian province?

To answer the first question, we need to ask, “How does the water come to be contaminated?” The answer lies in the roots of the iconic American West, where cattle hold sway over almost everything else. The answer may also be simple: cattle congregate in streambeds, defecate in streambeds, and thereby contaminate streambeds. This congregation also happens to severely degrade those streambeds and the vital ecological processes, such as soil conservation and biodiversity maintenance, linked to them. There is an alternative, though equally simple, potential cause: huge industrial-scale cattle operations create huge amounts of manure; that manure generally is consolidated into huge piles; when it rains, the piles leach into waterways. Whether the manure is concentrated in a feedlot or dispersed throughout the range, E. coli accompanies it into the water.

So then, how does contaminated water get onto the fields? Most irrigation water is pumped from aquifers, and the movement of water through the soil serves to filter out contaminants such as bacteria. For the irrigation water itself to be contaminated, it must have come into contact with the bacteria after being pumped; in the recall of Foxy lettuce mentioned below, irrigation water had been held in a pool before being sprayed on the fields, and that is where the contamination took place.

Another potential avenue of contamination is flooding. The Salinas River, its tributaries, and its estuaries, have fecal coliform bacteria levels significantly above legal limits; E. coli is one such fecal coliform bacterium. After last winter’s heavy rains, some of that water may have flooded onto the fields, where the bacteria can survive in the soil for four months or more. Other possibilities for contamination include worker hygiene issues, such as lack of access to sanitary toilets, or wild animals defecating or tracking tainted soil into the field.

The second question, then: How did the problem spread so far? As September’s spinach fiasco unfolded, news stations reported with horror the climbing number of states affected, referring to the “outbreak” as though the contaminant was spreading from place to place in a manner outside of our control. On the contrary, the outbreaks across North America were so widespread due to a very sophisticated system of distribution that allows all of our food to be grown by only one percent of our population. This system is incredibly efficient at moving food grown in one place – say, California’s Salinas Valley – to other places far away – such as Wisconsin, Canada, or Taiwan.

The system that moves produce efficiently also moves pathogens, pesticide residues, and other contaminants.

The benefit of this system is that consumers have ready access to products they might otherwise be without. Anyone who’s had a craving for tomatoes in February, or for almost any produce in almost any city, can appreciate this. The problem is that the system that moves produce efficiently also moves pathogens, pesticide residues, and other contaminants.

A single facility may package produce grown on several farms, then ship it for sale under an array of brand names. Once spinach is bagged, for example, it becomes a simple matter to slap a label on that bag and send it off. Or to slap some forty different labels on it, as the Natural Selection Foods processing plant did in the recent spinach case, sending their product out under the names Natural Selection Foods, Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, Dole, Rave Spinach, Emeril, Sysco, O Organic, Fresh Point, River Ranch, Superior, Nature’s Basket, Pro-Mark, Compliments, Trader Joe’s, Ready Pac, Jansal Valley, Cheney Brothers, D’Arrigo Brothers Co. of New York, Green Harvest, Mann, Mills Family Farm, Premium Fresh, Snoboy, The Farmer’s Market, Tanimura & Antle, President’s Choice, Cross Valley, and Riverside Farms. And all this time you thought buying from Earthbound Farms was different than buying from Dole.

Seventy-five percent of the nation’s greens are grown in California, and seventy-five percent of those are grown in the Salinas Valley. This is not the first time E. coli has turned up in California’s salad greens, but the ninth in a decade. In fact, the year has been full of such outbreaks. Just two weeks before the spinach recall, Monterey Mushrooms recalled mushrooms in seven east-coast states due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause a variety of illnesses from severe diarrhea to meningitis; Classic Salads of Salinas initiated a nationwide recall of salad mix and baby spinach due to contamination with Salmonella in July. A week after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lifted restrictions on fresh spinach, Nunes Co. irrigation water tested positive for E. coli, prompting a recall of 8,500 cartons of Foxy brand lettuce. In October, fresh tomatoes were linked to a Salmonella outbreak that sickened over 180 people in 21 states and two Canadian provineces.

In 2005, the FDA issued a letter to “California firms that grow, pack, process, or ship fresh and fresh-cut lettuce” that warned the industry of its “serious concern with the continuing outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of fresh and fresh-cut lettuce and other leafy greens.” In this letter the FDA “strongly encourages” and “recommends” that the industry revise and strengthen its practices, specifically in regards to E. coli O517:H7. The letter specifies also that leafy greens contaminated by flooding are to be considered “adulterated” and should be “excluded from the human food supply,” warning that the “FDA is investigating regulatory options and will consider enforcement against firms and farms that grow, pack, or process fresh lettuce and leafy greens under such unsanitary conditions.” The FDA does not, however, have the power to require that firms or farms test their produce, and FDA inspectors often visit a given establishment only every few years.

The 2005 letter received little notice at the time, but in the wake of the recent scandal, Natural Selection Foods has announced “an ambitious and unprecedented program” to “prevent another outbreak like this from occurring.” The program is modeled on the beef industry’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, and adopts a “firewall” approach. This means testing each lot of greens before it enters the packing facility, which Charles Sweat, COO of Natural Selection, says “will prevent anything like this E. coli-contaminated produce from ever entering our facilities.”

black-and-white microscope photo, with many small tubelike microbes visibleUSDAThis stainless steel food processing plant work surface, magnified here 300 times,
retains an astonishing number of bacteria after cleaning.

Sweat also stresses that “we do not consider food safety a competitive advantage. We will make everything we learn available to everyone in our industry. These are challenging steps and will be challenging to implement, but they will be well worth the effort if we can prevent another outbreak such as this and restore consumer confidence in spinach and fresh cut produce.”

As the private sector tightens its regulations, it is questionable whether government oversight is strong enough, or organized enough, to guarantee the safety of the food supply. Regulatory functions are shared between the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the FDA, with the USDA covering meat, dairy, and eggs and the FDA covering all other food. Within the FDA, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) is in charge of recalls; within the USDA recalls are the job of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Both agencies have jurisdiction only over food involved in interstate commerce; in-state matters are handled by state governments. In addition, the US EPA oversees pesticide and irrigation issues, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) deals with foodborne illnesses.

It is the CDC that maintains the “nationwide system of food-borne disease surveillance” which allows illnesses in disparate locations to be traced back to their single source. In response to a major E.coli outbreak in 1993, the CDC and the Association of Public Health Laboratories developed PulseNet, a national network of health departments and government agencies that allows the prompt comparison of DNA “fingerprints” of pathogens from labs across the nation. This is the system that allowed the rapid response time in the spinach case: there was a three-week lag between the first people falling ill and a recall of the affected spinach. While faster than would have been possible without such a network, this system still allowed the deaths of three people and the illnesses of more than 200.

As a result, many people are arguing for a consolidation of governmental power into one regulatory agency. Among those people are Tom Ridge, chief of Homeland Security, and Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and Richard Durbin (D-IL) who have proposed legislation to create a Food Safety Administration with oversight and enforcement power that combines – and surpasses – that of the FDA and the USDA.

When I began to write this article, I envisioned it as a sort of literal muck-raking exposé, taking the spinach event and tying it to the national issue of food supply and distribution. I expected that some other publications would make this same leap –, for instance, or Alternet – but not The Media. Not mainstream news. And certainly not the Salt Lake Tribune, the Denver Post, and the Houston Chronicle.

But all these newspapers, based in solidly conservative cities, have printed articles connecting the outbreak to agribusiness. The Houston Chronicle, in fact, ran three stories that link the spinach contamination to a wider problem; two of these were Associated Press (AP) stories. The AP story entitled “Food Chain Vulnerable to Outbreaks” (October 9, 2006) ran across the country, and was picked up by publications ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle to Time magazine. The article suggested that increased regulation is necessary to control a vast and centralized food supply. A few days later, the AP ran “More consumers turning to local growers,” (October 16, 2006) which addressed the other side of the argument: if big farms are more susceptible to large-scale problems, buy from small, local farms instead. They don’t need big governmental oversight, because they are directly accountable to their customers.

When a bag of Dole spinach causes an illness, it takes weeks just to trace the product to the responsible field, and longer to figure out how it came to be contaminated. Most cases of E. coli are never, in fact, conclusively traced back to a specific source. If someone gets sick from a farmers’ market salad, however, the farmer is there next week to question. The third Houston Chronicle article connects all the dots: from greenhouse gas emissions to local economies to the simple matter of taste, drawing the conclusion that the “recent spinach scare should make ‘locavores’ of us all.” (October 9, 2006)

Big business politics aside, that’s easy enough to say in Texas, where food can be grown year-round (given enough water) – and it’s so easy in California that “California cuisine” has become synonymous with “fresh and local.” From spring through fall, spinach can be grown in every state in the Union. But what about those tomatoes in February? Or what about anything in February in Maine?

The question now seems to be, how can we feed ourselves safely? Local, organic produce is not available to everyone all year ’round, but large-scale produce like bagged spinach is. If we are going to get our food from factory farms, those farms need to be overseen and regulated. That same regulation, however, is crippling to small farms trying to sell locally. Can the government distinguish between the two? Such a distinction has not been possible in the case of the meat industry. Only meat butchered in USDA-approved slaughterhouses can be sold to the public, which is important if fifty-thousand-head herds are being slaughtered. It is a formidable obstacle to a small farmer if the nearest approved slaughterhouse is a hundred miles away, and designed for fifty-thousand-head herds.

If similar guidelines are enacted for the produce industry – requiring produce to be processed only in FDA-approved plants, for instance, and requiring daily inspections like those in the meat-packing business – the industrial-scale food system will undoubtedly be safer. The impact on the farmers’ markets is harder to predict. The small farmers around Salinas Valley might be able to take advantage of nearby facilities intended to serve the big producers, but what about those already struggling in places without existing facilities?

Amidst the clamor for stronger safety regulations, HR 4167, the National Uniformity for Foods Act, has passed in the House. This bill annuls any food-safety laws other than those passed by (or identical to the ones passed by) the FDA. The National Association of Attorneys General, the Association of Food and Drug Officials, and National Association of State Departments of Agriculture have issued letters in opposition to the bill. According to the National Association of Attorneys General, “state and local governments perform more than 80% of food safety work,” and this bill “strips state governments of the ability to protect their residents.” This bill particularly targets California’s Proposition 65, which informs citizens about potentially hazardous chemicals in their water, food, and environment. A companion Senate bill is currently in committee.

As our population grows, these questions can only become more pressing, and the answers more complicated. How we get our food is a fundamental issue in our lives, and the threats to what is currently the safest food system in the world are likely to become more serious. Fortunately, the increasing notice to food security issues being paid by the mainstream press, the explosion of farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs suggest that the country is beginning to take the issue seriously. In the meantime, some spinach in a window box might help even those of us in the frozen north get through the long cold days ahead.

Caitlin O’Brien is an Earth Island Journal intern.

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