It’s What’s For Dinner

The E.coli Breakout On Spinach Makes Us Wonder … What’s Really On Our Plates?

Laura Paskus
8 min read
Monte Skarsgard rests on a post in one of Los Poblanos’ harvested fields. (Wes Naman)
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In October, the FBI and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) executed search warrants on two California produce companies. It does seem kind of surreal, actually, that the FBI would carry out a spinach bust, but e.coli contamination in packaged spinach did, after all, sicken 199 people, including five New Mexicans, and lead to the death of three people.

(For those who would rather not know, the bacteria
e.coli is found in human or animal feces, and though exposure to it is usually harmless, it can cause diarrhea, cramps and fever. In some instances, it can also lead to kidney damage, and, in old people or children, even death.)

The outbreak began in early August, though panic didn’t really take over until September, as grocery stores, restaurants and households dumped out their spinach and swore off leafy greens.

When the FDA traced the contaminated spinach to California’s Natural Selection Foods, it settled the minds of millions, but it also gave groups such as The Heartland Institute the opportunity to take a bizarre potshot at organic growers: According to Jay Lehr, science director of the Libertarian Institute, “The recent
e. coli outbreak thought to be tied to organic spinach farms in California should serve to remind Americans that organic food is not necessarily safer food.” (For clarity’s sake, it’s helpful to point out that although Natural Selection Foods does process and package organic produce, the e.coli contamination was found in conventional spinach.) Meanwhile, as the FDA continues investigating the exact origins of the contamination, Natural Foods Selection CEO Charles Sweat is blaming growers, saying the contamination came from their fields, not his packing and shipping facilities.

But in the larger sense, food safety isn’t about growers versus packing facilities, or even organic versus conventional farmers. It’s about knowing where food comes from, how it was grown and what it’s been exposed to—from seed to dinner plate.

Don’t Drink the Water

The San Juan Bautista-based Natural Selection Foods packages and distributes greens under 30 different brands, including Earthbound Farms (which was the company’s original name and now applies to the organic side of the business), Dole, Emeril, Bellissima, Rave Spinach, Green Harvest, Mills Family Farm, President’s Choice, SYSCO, O Organic, Trader Joe’s and Ready Pac. In turn, all of these companies use spinach in hundreds of their own products.

If that seems mind-boggling, it’s even harder to try and trace where produce comes from in the first place. The contaminated spinach appears to have come from one of nine farms in three California counties, but the company also packages and distributes produce from across California, Arizona, Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Canada, Chile and New Zealand. All told, the company packages produce that’s grown on more than 26,000 acres.

It’s probably fair to say that the vast majority of Americans are completely oblivious as to the origins of the food they eat. But after this latest debacle, how many people were left staring at their bags of spinach—a terrorist threat right there in the kitchen—and wondering where on earth those greens came from?

Those who buy their produce locally here in New Mexico could be smug. There is no shortage of places to buy local produce that’s grown right here in the state: Go to La Montanita’s Co-op, pick up a box of produce once a week at Los Poblanos Organics on Rio Grande or stop at any of the farmer’s markets during the summer. Other options include Santa Fe’s Beneficial Farms and Ranch Collaborative. As the demand for local food and organic food has increased over the past few years, it’s getting easier and easier for consumers to make choices that allow them to know exactly where their food comes from.

But it’s not enough to know where the food comes from. Consumers might also want to know what water that food is irrigated or cleaned with. In the case of the California spinach, the FDA points out that although this outbreak has been linked to the one supplier, there “has been a long history of
E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks involving leafy greens from the central California region.” Since the FDA provides no context for this statement, it’s helpful to check out the FDA’s Good Agricultural Practices Guide.

According to that guide, produce can be contaminated through exposure to: contaminated agricultural water (for irrigation or crop protection), wild or domestic animals, sick or unhygienic workers, manure-contaminated production areas and equipment, contamination on adjacent lands, and contaminated water that’s used to wash or cool produce.

It’s at this point that industrial and local food production overlap: Everybody needs water and water quality is an issue almost everywhere. Even here in the Middle Rio Grande—where the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) distributes water to about 70,000 acres of cropland between Cochiti Reservoir and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge—there is the potential for
e.coli contamination.

Last year, the state and the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District released a report showing high levels of fecal coliform—the human and animal waste associated with the bacteria
e.coli —in the Rio Grande.

Federal standards for fecal coliform are based on the designated uses of a body of water.   Designations for the Middle Rio Grande include "irrigation, limited warmwater fishery, livestock watering, wildlife habitat and secondary contact" and this stretch of the river is divided into two sections which then have their own standards.  From the Alameda Bridge downstream to Elephant Butte (the stretch through Albuquerque, in other words), levels aren’t supposed to exceed 1,000 fecal coliforms per 100 ml of water over the course of monthly sampling.  North of Albuquerque, samples aren’t supposed to exceed 200 fecal coliforms per 100 ml of water over the course of a month.

On an average day, the levels through Albuquerque are 20 to 30 times the federal standards for fecal coliform; during flooding (remember July?) the levels are nearly astronomical.

And that’s the water used to irrigate crops? Granted, the majority of farmers in the Middle Rio Grande grow forage crops such as alfalfa and hay—products that never make it onto dinner plates in their original form. And smart growers, whether the housewife with a plot of tomatoes in the backyard or organic farmers along the bosque, know not to irrigate food crops with water from the Middle Rio Grande. Although this seems a shame—river water that can’t come into contact with food—it’s a reality of modern life.

For instance, although Los Poblanos Organics, just east of Rio Grande Boulevard as it winds toward Los Ranchos, has rights to MRGCD ditch water, that water isn’t used to irrigate food crops, says Monte Skarsgard, the head of farming operations. Produce is watered using a drip irrigation system with water pumped from a well. That practice, he says, “conserves the water, and the water purity coming out of the well is a lot better.” He knows exactly where that water’s coming from, he says, and knows it’s clean. To Skarsgard, it’s a matter of trust: Consumers can trust him and other local growers to know what they’re doing. “Everyone’s busy,” he says, “so we try and take that off people’s minds.” Los Poblanos grows everything from greens and tomatoes to squash and eggplant in its own fields, but it also helps distribute produce from other local farms. “We’ll go and find the people that are doing good jobs and hopefully the people will trust us enough that they’ll trust we’re making the right choices for them.”

By the same token, if consumers actually know where their food is coming from—not just what store or packaging company, but possibly even which field—then there can be real “food security.” Consumers don’t have to wait for the government to track where contaminated food may have ended up, nor where it might have come from. Just as the spinach hysteria has started to die down, in fact, there have been two more national recalls: one of lettuce grown in California and one of bottled carrot juice.

When shopping on the local scale, says Skarsgard, you can walk up to the producer—whether at a farmer’s market or at a farm like Los Poblanos—and ask questions such as, “What did you feed these chickens?” or “Where’d you get the water to spray these crops?” “It’s really neat to have that connection to the food on a philosophical level,” he says. “But it’s also great on a food security level that you know what’s happening.”
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