USA Today reporters Elizabeth Weise and Julie Schmit say the E. coliO157:H7 bug responsible for the recent spinach outbreak has been positively matched to a farm in the Salinas Valley. Although the farm has not been identified, the story provides enough information to suggest that, at a minimum, federal Good Agricultural Practices are too vaguely defined to be useful. Making them mandatory, which Earthbound Farms implies government should have done to prevent the outbreak, is unlikely to help.
The USA Today blog summarizes:
The deadly strain of E. coli that contaminated California spinach has been traced to cow manure at a cattle ranch about a mile from the fields in the Salinas Valley, federal and state health officials announced this afternoon. But there’s still no “smoking cow,” said Dr. Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the Prevention Services Division of the California Department of Health Services.
The proximity of the cattle ranch to the spinach fields is now the issue.
The conditions described by officials can’t be considered good agricultural practices, said Trevor Suslow, an expert on produce safety at the University of California, Davis. Placing crop fields next to cattle pastures is known to carry a level of risk, he said, as cattle are natural carriers of E. coli O157:H7. “These are ready-to-eat products that people consume without cooking,” the FDA’s Robert Brackett said. “It’s absolutely essential that every farm in the area and the country do what they can to ensure this never happens again.”
We have previously posted on Good Agricultural Practices, pointing out that the guidance offers mostly unremarkable suggestions that are not informed by science. Some examples:
- “Manure storage and treatment sites should be situated as far as practicable from fresh produce production and handling areas.”
- “Consider barriers or physical containment to secure manure storage or treatment areas where contamination from runoff, leaching, or wind spread is a concern.”
- “Consider good agricultural practices to minimize leachate from manure storage or treatment areas contaminating produce.”
- “Consider practices to minimize the potential of recontaminating treated manure.”
- “Consider incorporating manure into the soil prior to planting.”
- “Applying raw manure, or leachate from raw manure, to produce fields during the growing season prior to harvest is not recommended.”
- “Maximize the time between application of manure to produce production areas and harvest.”
- “Where it is not possible to maximize the time between application and harvest, such as for fresh produce crops which are harvested throughout most of the year, raw manure should not be used”
UC Davis’ Suslow isn’t quoted on the specific question of whether a 1-mile distance between the cattle ranch and the spinach farm is not great enough to adhere to governmental Good Agricultural Practices. But if one mile is not enough, then how much distance is necessary? The critical question is how pathogens from the cattle ranch were transported to the spinach farm a mile away, which presumably is now the subject of the continuing investigation.
In an October 5 announcement, Earthbound Farms says that it has abandoned its previous reliance on federal Good Agricultural Practices. Yet it seems to imply that the observed breakdown is not attributable to defects in GAP but in the government’sfailure to enforce it:
But Earthbound Farms could have enforced GAP through its contracts, and quite likely in a more rigorous and consistent manner. More revealing in its statement is the array of new procedures it has announced–none of which are part of GAP:
Earthbound Farms is in an awkward position. It has liberally criticized government regulators for their lack of vigilance and others in the food business for not living up to its own standards. But each of the several announcements it has issued since the E. coli outbreak occurred conveys the impression that the company is the primary victim of the outbreak. The final sentence of its latest announcement transforms its crisis management decision to follow ICMSF into another criticism of its competitors: