E. coli outbreak tarnishes California farming region

September 21, 2006|By Deborah Schoch and Mary Engel | Deborah Schoch and Mary Engel,Los Angeles Times

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. --Much food lore has sprung from the Salinas and nearby valleys, fertile farm country that stretches from oak-studded hills to the bottom land and packing plants of Salinas and King City.

The National Steinbeck Center on Salinas' Main Street pays homage to the farming themes of The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row.

Organic farming has deep roots here, and so does the phenomenon of bagging fresh greens. Together, the two trends resulted in Natural Selection Foods, the industry giant that has grown rapidly amid farm fields and sunflowers in San Juan Bautista.

Now, with fresh spinach linked to an unusually virulent E. coli outbreak that has killed one and sickened at least 130 nationwide, the region has become famous for another reason.

In a period of five days, a whirlwind of health warnings and media reports has tarnished the reputation of the region's growers and processors so severely that experts predict some farms with large spinach crops might fail.

Although they have tentatively linked some of the illnesses to Natural Selection, federal regulators have recommended against eating any fresh spinach, organic or otherwise, abruptly halting the spinach harvest.

Television crews have crisscrossed the valley, filming the heavily guarded gates at Natural Selection and the spinach fields soon to be plowed under.

Many growers are upset by the media's juxtaposing those valley images with scenes of frightened consumers and terse government regulators addressing the dangers of E. coli. Most have declined to talk to reporters, fearing that their economic concerns might be mistaken for greed, especially as more illnesses are reported nationwide.

With farmers reluctant to speak, Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, has shouldered the responsibility, stressing that growers put health and safety first - ahead of their financial fears - and adding that the growers hope the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will soon narrow its focus.

Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's food safety division, said the number of growers under investigation could increase, and he didn't rule out recalls beyond those by Natural Selection and Salinas-based River Ranch Fresh Foods, covering 34 brands.

Deborah Schoch and Mary Engel write for the Los Angeles Times.

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