Getting To Know E. Coli

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Boy. It sure seems like a lot of time has passed since the news broke last fall about the bagged spinach products that were contaminated with E. coli. In February, I attended the Mid-Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA, and during a session on food safety, one speaker said that it takes about six months to a year for a commodity to rebound after a foodborne illness. I almost hate to think about the losses spinach growers incurred as a result of what happened in one California county.

Now the investigation on the E. coli outbreak has drawn to a close. During a teleconference about a month ago, the findings basically confirmed information we had already received: The E. coli was traced to a 50-acre plot in San Benito County. According to those in the California Department of Health Services, the problem is multifaceted and a number of areas could have contributed to the foodborne illness outbreak. What the investigators are positive about, though, is a need for more research on the E. coli pathogen.

Learn About The Enemy

In order to “fight” E. coli, growers need to know what they are up against. They need to know what helps E. coli grow, what vectors allow it to move to other areas, and the likely modes of it spreading. Having answers to those questions just may help them stop the pathogen in its tracks.

During the teleconference, it was also mentioned that anytime there are animals and livestock near fields, there is a potential for contamination. Well, think about how many farms grow crops and raise some livestock and haven’t had any problems. What are these growers supposed to do? Get rid of their livestock? This month’s cover story subject, West Coast Tomato/McClure Farm, did just that. According to D.C. McClure, one of the owners, removing the livestock was in the best interest of the farm.

Something else that is in the best interest of the farm is to follow Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to the best of your ability. I have a feeling, though, that most growers who have been successful over the years are conscientious about making sure the fresh vegetables they produce are as safe as they can be.

It is the gray area of not knowing the workings of the E. coli pathogen, however,  that is a big stumbling block. Maybe it is time to rattle some cages and see about getting funding for an E. coli research program. Start at the grassroots. Talk to fellow growers in your state association. Get a low rumble started. Eventually it will lead to a loud roar and those in charge of the purse strings will have to listen.

To keep the vegetable growing industry healthy, the consuming public must stay healthy as well. One case of a foodborne illness is one case too many. Following GAPs and understanding E. coli will put growers on the right track to significantly reduce their food safety risks.

It may seem like the spinach issue happened a long time ago, but if another problem arises, it will seem like it was just yesterday.

Rosemary Gordon is editor of American Vegetable Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.

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