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Spinach Scare Threatens Farm, Ranch Practices

The idea that bacteria may have traveled from cattle to vegetables prompts fears of new limits on growers, such as buffer zones.

October 15, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II and Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writers

SALINAS, Calif. — As regulators scrutinize the new-found genetic match between tainted spinach and manure from a nearby cattle ranch, Salinas Valley-area farmers are increasingly fearful that the long-standing coexistence of two leading agricultural practices may be in jeopardy.

The breakthrough suggests that deadly E. coli O157:H7 somehow might have traveled from cattle to a spinach field, provoking an outbreak that has killed three people and sickened nearly 200 in 26 states.

Those who farm in this valley known as the "salad bowl of the world" worry that the finding announced Thursday by state and federal regulators might help trigger new rules restricting where they can grow produce in a region already crowded with farm fields, cattle ranches and new homes.

"There has been farming and ranching here for at least 100 years.... and all of a sudden this problem is exposed?" said Scott Violini, a fourth-generation cattle rancher based in Salinas, sitting on the back of his pickup.

Investigators caution that they are far from pinpointing a direct link between cattle droppings and spinach, and they and other experts list many possible factors that could have spread the bacterium, including wild boars, irrigation water and even dust.

But already, some health experts are urging potential safeguards -- such as more fencing and even more stringent testing of soil, water and produce -- which some farmers are already doing voluntarily.

One idea floated last week was that of a required buffer zone, a demilitarized zone of sorts separating cattle and produce fields that could place wide swaths of valuable land out of bounds for growing.

All of this raises the stress level of farmers who grow three-quarters of the nation's spinach.

"It's an enormously scary situation for anyone producing food crops," said Jim Rider of Watsonville, who grows organic apples and cut flowers but still is unnerved by the spinach outbreak. "We all know that we do a pretty good job, but you also know there's no way you can produce a 100% clean and safe product when you're growing it outdoors."

He and others cringe at the prospect of new standards that could turn the Salinas Valley into a virtual greenhouse, its fields fenced, netted and sanitized. "If you build those, everyone is going to buy their produce from Chile because it's cheaper," Rider said.

But health officials point out that the Salinas Valley area has seen nine outbreaks of the virulent E. coli in the last decade or so, providing plenty of warning that agricultural practices need improvement.

The latest finding marked the first time that investigators have matched the bacterium from an outbreak to an E. coli sample in the environment close to where the contaminated spinach or lettuce was grown.

The proximity of cattle to farm fields "has always been an issue of concern," said Robert Brackett, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food safety center, during a conference call with reporters Thursday.

In the days since, growers have puzzled over newspaper accounts of how regulators describe the still-unidentified cattle ranch in Monterey County or San Benito County where the cattle feces were found.

The ranch is said to cover several thousand acres, wrapping around a spinach field separated from cattle by a paved road and fences. The manure samples were found a half-mile to a mile from the field. It is one of four believed to have supplied spinach to Natural Selection Foods, which packaged greens under the Dole label tied to the E. coli outbreak. The rancher leased the field to a spinach grower, regulators said.

Growers and ranchers say they are stumped. No farmer they can think of is growing spinach on a land island inside a cattle ranch, they said.

"It certainly doesn't describe 99.9% of Salinas Valley agriculture," Rider said.

"If there really is a spinach field surrounded by a cattle ranch, I think we'd all love to shut it down and get on with it," Rider said.

Cattle and farm fields have coexisted here for nearly a century, since vegetable production became popular in the early 1900s along the Central California coast.

Most cattle spreads are grazing operations, however, where only a few dozen calves and younger cows dot the hills at a time, unlike the dense cattle feed lots of the Central Valley.

Most farmland is concentrated in the fertile valley bottom and is not bordered by pasture land.

But the two operations do coexist on the drier foothills lining the valleys: prime real estate for cattle grazing operations.

"You drive up and down the valley -- there's range land all around," said Andrew Cumming, president and chief operating officer of King City-based Metz Fresh. "It shouldn't be a surprise."

When a reporter asked regulators Thursday if they would consider instituting a minimum setback or buffer zone between farms and cattle operations, Brackett said that would be "something we will take into consideration as we go forward."

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