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E. Coli Outbreak Puts CA Agriculture Under the Microscope

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

E. coli is back in the news. At least 71 people got sick after eating at Taco Bell. Early testing suggested tainted California produce was to blame. There was no connection, but the state's multi-billion dollar produce industry fell under scrutiny once again. California spinach farmers are still reeling from an E. coli outbreak a few months ago. Mike Marks is with California-based FreshPoint, one of the nation's biggest food companies. He says consumers should put these health scares into perspective.
Mike Marks: We grow produce in a very un-sterile environment. That's just the way it is. It's dirt, it's bacteria, there's animals, it's just an un-sterile environment. We are four to five generations away from the family farm. People today don't have a clue what a farm is like. And so when they just see these stories totally out of context of what the farming community in America is all about, it raises a perception and it reduces prices.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks some 1500 outbreaks of food-borne illnesses every year. Overall, far fewer people get sick from those outbreaks compared to a decade ago. But statistics don't comfort the families of victims. After the E. coli outbreak at Jack-in-the-Box thirteen years ago, some San Diego families formed STOP: Safe Tables, Our Priority. Nancy Donley is president.
Nancy Donley : No, no farms are not a sterile environment. But there's a lot of things that can be done to make food safer than it is. Produce producers need to understand that this is just not a commodity – that it's food. And that they need to put the best practice forward to make it as safe as they possibly can. And that's not being done right now.
Wait a minute, says Marks.
Marks : Growers are very, very concerned about it. I've spoken to many growers who say, Mike, we feel like we're the bad guys now. We're doing everything that we can—that we know how to do—and we're feeding the world, we're feeding our nation, and yet we are being made out to be the bad guy.
Marks says farmers are out of ideas. So big trade groups like the Western Growers Association are asking for more oversight from the federal government. Donley has some ideas. She wants health inspectors to test for bacteria more frequently. And she wants food-safety agencies to merge into one.
Donley: These organisms that get into produce, they come from animals. Those are two entirely different regulatory agencies that are responsible. We need someone who's gonna take a look at the bigger picture. People don't care if the food that has made them sick or killed a loved one came from a USDA-inspected facility, FDA or whatever.
The Safe Food Act aims to fix that. It comes before Congress next year. Mike Marks agrees: food safety needs a long, hard look. But he says the United States still has the safest food supply in the world.
Marks: Every time there is an outbreak, the media really gets on board. You know it almost gives the impression like there's bad food and bad produce everywhere you turn. And that's really just not the case. You know, if you put everything into perspective, we have 300 million people who live here. You're looking at 600 million to 900 million meals every single day.
California produce is no longer suspected in Taco Bell's E. coli outbreak. But Marks says the speculation alone is a black eye on the industry. Now health officials think lettuce is the culprit. It remains to be seen if that crop was home-grown, too. For KPBS, I'm Andrew Phelps.

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