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When E. Coli happens

October 11, 2006

THE SALINAS VALLEY GROWER that recalled 8,500 cartons of lettuce this week did all the right things: The company tested its irrigation water, and when it found E. coli, it took its lettuce off the market even before the tests could show whether it was a dangerous strain. But the current E. coli outbreak, the 20th in a decade, indicates that not all farmers take all the steps they should.

Most farms are more careful than most people realize. They regularly test their soil and irrigation water for E. coli and follow other common safety practices. The companies that buy their produce insist on it, and they require audits to back it up. Growers and markets have a powerful built-in incentive not to poison customers.

But how often do farms perform the tests and follow other safety measures? Does every farm do them, and how much is enough? These questions are difficult to answer -- but they shouldn't be. Different buyers sometimes require different practices; some farms fail to take all the necessary steps. Government-mandated, uniform protocols could go a long way toward avoiding health-related catastrophes.

As long as farming is done outdoors, there is no way to guarantee against E. coli getting on produce. Although the investigation into another recent case, involving spinach contamination, is not complete, agricultural safety experts suspect that it happened in the field, not at the packaging plant, and that it was not caused by the chance droppings of a bird or other wild animal. It appears to have come up through the roots, indicating that the soil or the irrigation water was compromised.

In addition to testing, common safety practices involve locating fields at a distance from livestock operations in order to avoid contamination from manure. If farms use manure as a fertilizer, it's supposed to be pathogen-free, and even then there's generally a waiting period between fertilizing and planting. But not all farms follow all these practices, or to the same extent. In the spinach contamination case, investigators are examining manure from a cattle pasture next to the field. The strain of E. coli found in the manure is the same as that implicated in the deaths of three people who ate the contaminated spinach.

Each time there is an E. coli breakout, the state and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration demand that the industry clean up its act. The industry asks for precise guidelines on what to do, and it gets no answers. Regulators can start by outlining mandatory, common-sense safety practices to protect both public health and farming's reputation.

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