Spinach Farmers Look to Repair E. Coli Damage

Many California farmers are now faced with the task of redeeming themselves with consumers after spinach from the state was linked to a deadly E. coli outbreak that sickened people in dozens of states. John Sepulvado of member station KAZU in Monterey, Calif., talks with Mike Pesca about ways in which local farmers are trying to prevent future breakouts and improve their public image.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca.

There was a time - in fact, it was about two and a half weeks ago - when spinach enjoyed the best press a food could hope for. Iron. Nutrients. Your grandmother saying, Eat spinach. And this guy...

(Soundbite of "Popeye" theme song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I'm Popeye the sailor man. I'm strong to the finish because I eats me spinach. I'm Popeye the sailor man.

PESCA: It's amazing what an E. coli outbreak can do for a food's dinner creed. Now the California's spinach industry is trying to find a way to prevent any more outbreaks. Reporter John Sepulvado from member station KAZU in Monterey, California joins us now.

John, I understand that California's produce industry wants to reassure the public, but they can really promise there'll be no more E. coli outbreaks?

JOHN SEPULVADO: No, they really can't. The Center for Disease Control estimates there's somewhere between 60,000 to 70,000 cases of E. coli 0157. So promising to stop these E. coli outbreaks in a region as big as California is like promising to kill, you know, a swarm of locust with the fly swatter. Still, the investigation into this outbreak is a unique opportunity for the industry and the Food and Drug Administration. They're mobilized. They're aggressively searching for the cause of this outbreak.

Now, they've never been able to trace this deadly E. coli all the way back to its original source. If they can do that this time, then they can look at what changes need to happen to keep the E. coli out of the produce supply chain.

PESCA: Well, let's talk about the original source. Original reports - and this sounds a little like CSI: Vegetable Patch or something - but original reports had the E. coli coming out of organic spinach. Has that turned out to be the case as far as the investigators know?

SEPULVADO: No, it hasn't. According to the company at the center of the outbreak, Natural Selection Foods - the bags linked to this outbreak are conventionally grown, which basically means their growth is, you know, with synthetic chemicals.

PESCA: Can you talk a little bit about the history of E. coli outbreaks? There have been quite a few, correct?

SEPULVADO: Yeah, there's been nine in the past 10 years. The problem with these outbreaks and tracing them is that they're really hard to track. By the time someone gets sick and the investigation takes place, it's too late. An outbreak in Wisconsin could be tied to one worker in Arizona that didn't wash their hands. By the time the investigators get there, that worker could be somewhere else in the country or on a different field.

So since an outbreak sources never been found definitively, the ag industry here has always had some wiggle room to avoid tougher and most costly safety practices, because they can basically always say, well, you can't definitively link it, so we don't need to definitively change. The FDA also hasn't been very effective at getting the industry to change and prevent these outbreaks. In fact, many growers believe that the FDA issued this nationwide blanket warning to muscle the entire industry, basically to force them to change.

And the warning has definitely got the attention of everybody, from the guys that sell seeds all the way up to the grocers. This crisis, as it's often called around here, appears to be paving the way for industry reform.

PESCA: So what would that look like? Would they have to come up with some new rules and some new laws? Or can they just go by better enforcement of existing standards?

SEPULVADO: You know, that's a really good question. The one thing that the industry doesn't want is politicians to get involved and create new laws. That seems to be there one of their big focuses. As far as like getting tougher, it begs the question really can be done differently, because they already say it's very safe. The industry will say changes are on the way when they're at the press conferences, but so far they're not saying what those changes are. And they have the long history of fighting changes.

That's why one of the most popular ideas is to find pressure points in the system, you know, like links in the supply chain where contamination is most likely to occur, and focus on regulating those.

PESCA: John Sepulvado from Station KAZU, Monterey, California. Thank you, John.

SEPULVADO: Thank you very much.

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