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E. Coli Spurs Review of Lettuce Farms

Salinas Valley growers' practices are being evaluated by state and federal health officials after products' link to repeated outbreaks.

September 11, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

KING CITY, Calif. — Federal and state officials have launched a wide-ranging evaluation of lettuce farming and processing in the Salinas Valley, hoping to determine why leafy greens grown here over the last decade have been linked to a potentially deadly strain of E. coli.

Lettuce and spinach grown in the valley, dubbed the "Salad Bowl of the World," have been connected to eight of 19 outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7, associated with such produce since 1995. The eight outbreaks have sickened at least 217 people in eight states, including two who died at a retirement home in Northern California in 2003.

"That organism is so virulent, it is particularly dangerous," said Robert Brackett, who directs the food safety division at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is leading the investigation.

The recent inspections, which started in late August and will continue through the fall, come after nearly a year of heightened pressure from FDA and state officials to reduce the risk of E. coli contamination. The agencies' concern was intensified when at least 34 people in Minnesota were sickened last year after consuming packaged Dole salad from the Salinas Valley.

The valley grows the vast majority of the nation's lettuce, thanks to the region's relatively cool climate. Though the outbreaks thus far appear not to have affected sales, some experts say continued reports of infection could erode confidence in the $2-billion-a-year lettuce industry. In addition, such problems can be a liability for produce distributors and food establishments that serve the greens.

One lawyer, Bill Marler, has represented more than 70 clients in cases linked to Salinas Valley lettuce, with settlements he described ranging from the tens of thousands to millions of dollars.

"We dare not make a mistake," said Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms, who while giving a tour of his company's expansive lettuce fields bit into some just-harvested leaves. "It could be the difference between staying in business and losing all your contracts."

Martin and other industry officials said they welcome the review. In addition, in April the industry adopted voluntary guidelines on sanitary practices for lettuce growers and processors.

"We're definitely sympathetic to anyone who has gotten sick or died," Martin said. "But we don't understand where ... it's coming from.... I don't know what else we can do."

Such comments don't satisfy Lori Olson, a Minneapolis mother whose two daughters were sickened with vomiting and diarrhea last year in the Dole lettuce outbreak.

"People have been getting sick for years from produce grown in this area, and people have died, and it's still going on," said Olson, 36, who added that she received a settlement from Dole but declined to disclose the amount.

Her youngest daughter, Amber Brister, now 13, suffered kidney failure and was hospitalized, missing two months of school. Though Amber has been doing well recently, she still gets tired easily and may someday need a kidney transplant, her mother said.

Produce need be contaminated with only a small quantity of E. coli for a person to fall ill. The O157:H7 strain, which lives in the intestines of healthy cattle and is present in manure, is passed to humans if they ingest the bacteria. Once eaten, it can produce a powerful toxin, leading to bloody diarrhea and, in rare cases, kidney failure.

The strain was associated in the 1990s with contaminated, undercooked hamburger meat served at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants and unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice. Odwalla sales plummeted after a 1996 outbreak killed a baby girl and sickened more than 60 others. The company paid a $1.5-million fine after pleading guilty to 16 misdemeanor criminal charges filed by federal prosecutors.

Ground beef can be grilled longer to kill E. coli and juice can be pasteurized, but a freshly tossed salad can't be baked or boiled.

Moreover, though health and agricultural officials have spent years trying to trace the precise source of the contamination -- whether it be tainted water, infected animals or workers -- it remains a mystery.

Trace-backs, as they are called, are complicated by the fact that it can be weeks before an infected person is properly diagnosed and even longer before public health officials determine that there is an outbreak. By the time investigators find the original farm, the field has probably already been plowed under for a new crop.

"Despite lengthy resource-intensive investigations by state and federal agencies, no smoking gun has been identified," wrote Jeff Farrar, a food safety official at the California Department of Health Services, in an e-mail to The Times.

The Salinas Valley has been implicated because the E. coli has been traced in some cases to sealed bags of greens grown and distributed from there, said the FDA's Brackett, so the probable source of contamination would be in the field or during processing.

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