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Solution to E. Coli not simple, quick regulatory fixes

E. coli. It even sounds nasty. California coastal vegetable growers and packers are struggling to dig out from one of the worst E. coli outbreaks ever.

Everyone from state and federal health inspectors, the FBI, growers and shippers, is trying to pinpoint the cause of the spinach E. coli link to several deaths and hundreds become seriously ill. However, the general consensus is that the exact cause of the outbreak will never be precisely determined.

It would be easy to blame it on organic farming and perhaps the use of manure or compost. I am no fan of the organic movement, but putting the blame on Natural Selection Foods and Earthbound Farm would be unwarranted unless conclusive evidence is uncovered that that is where it originated. Earthbound Farm grows more than 20,000 acres of organic product and is a well-respected bagged vegetable packer used by many of California's major packers to process proprietary organic lines A second recall for E. coli just hit the media. It is for lettuce packed under one of the most respected produce brands in the industry, “Foxy” from The Nunes Co. There apparently have been no illnesses associated with the recall ordered by the company as a precaution, after irrigation water tested positive for E. coli bacteria.

Everyone has an opinion as to the origin of E. coli. I have one as well. It is not scientific but is based on information gleaned from several meetings and talking with several people. It is originating in irrigation water and most likely a significant portion of it is coming from wildlife, not livestock operations, not compost and likely as not from manure used in organic food production.

Recently, I visited a man who was involved in a spinach recall traced to an organic spinach field. He said each morning before and during harvest, the grower would inspect each row of spinach for damage from feral hogs. The grower would redline any row where there was pig damage, and it would not be harvested. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that E. coli introduced into the field and tailwater by those hogs.

In this issue of Western Farm Press is an article about the massive water testing effort underway in the state to monitor pollutants in the state's waterways. The one thing testers are finding in very high levels is E. coli. Scientists are now conducting DNA tests to find out the source of the E. coli. However, no one involved in the water testing will be surprised to find at least a significant portion of the E. coli is coming from wildlife.

It is ironic that wildlife is a likely contributor to this major health issue because farming is supposedly killing off all the livestock with its use of pesticides and habitat destruction.

Another ironic part of this bacterial problem is likely coming from tailwater. Farmers accused of wasting water yet they use and re-use tailwater not only to reduce irrigation costs but to utilize every drop of water they can to produce food and fiber.

All the rules bureaucrats can create will not make this issue disappear. No one wants E. coli in their food. I am convinced farmers want the same thing and are doing all they can to preclude the bacteria from the food chain.

Agriculture will likely voluntarily or from government regulations do more to keep E. coli and other contaminants from food. However, regulators and the public must come to realize it is a complex issue that cannot be totally solved by more regulations on agriculture.

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