NEW YORK - The produce industry reacted cautiously to the news that cattle feces from one of the implicated California ranches contained the same strain of E. coli 0157:H7 associated with the spinach outbreak.
Industry officials said although they believe this is an important development, many questions remain.
"Because they've found a match for that particular strain, it doesn't mean it's the match for the cause of the outbreak," said Kathy Means, vice president, government relations, Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
Although it's not the definitive source, the finding marks the first time the industry has been able to trace it back this far, so it's an important step, Means said.
Dave Gombas, vice president, scientific and technical affairs, United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., agreed, but also expressed the same concern about jumping to conclusions.
"I would caution against getting too much out of this as we still have to figure out what this means," Gombas said. "Was that the source? Was it carried into the fields? Did it come from a common source like water? Right now, we don't know what it means but that's not going to stop people from reacting to it and trying to think about solutions and what it does mean."
The ranch that yielded the positive samples included cattle and spinach as well as other produce fields. The fecal matter was found half a mile to a mile from the produce fields and it was still unclear as to how exactly the spinach was contaminated.
Gombas said the industry is anxious to prevent another outbreak of illness, and that explains why some companies are reacting strongly to the latest development.
"We're already starting to hear some recommendations from customers that they're not going to accept leafy greens from fields located a quarter, a half or whatever number of miles away from cattle pastures in an effort to do something about it," Gombas said.
GUIDELINES IN PLACE
The industry already has guidelines regarding field placement in the Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices audit verification program. State departments of agriculture develop an audit-based program, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's assistance, that helps the industry verify compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.
"We're happy to have the scope narrowed to the four fields. It gives us cause to take a look at the Good Agricultural Practices and make sure it's sufficient," Means said. "Everyone needs to be taking a look at that. Not only Good Agricultural Practices, but also their own field practices by evaluating simple things like fences. Fences need to be up to try to prevent animals from walking through the produce fields, but there's not much you can do about the wild animals, birds and things like that. It's more complex than produce fields needing to be X amount of feet away, but it's something that needs to be addressed."
The industry already has made a lot of progress, said Tim Chelling, vice president of communications, Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif.
"The fact is that they've gone from a warning on all spinach down to California, down to four counties, down to 10 sites, down to four farms," he said. "If you follow that graph, this is really extremely valuable information and the kind of thing that people are looking for so they can remedy the situation and prevent this from happening again."
Chelling credited the industry for its collaboration. The latest break in the investigation was remarkable, given the outbreak took place less than a month ago, he said.
"It's an encouraging sign that this type of thing can be traced and can obviously be remedied," he said.
Chelling also stressed the importance of not concentrating on just one source. Though it may have been the cause of the outbreak, it would be dangerous to ignore other potential sources, he said.
"The fact right now is there's an immediate technical action plan that has been worked on since this first occurred and is being implemented even as it's being worked on," he said. "Specific steps include increased frequency and intensity of water and soil testing and sanitation and all those things act as safety measures to intercept pathogens from any source, not just this one source."
Spinach growers were concerned from the beginning about the possible erosion of food safety and about the people involved, Chelling said.
Although the development is an important break, the investigation is still ongoing, said Mike Bowman, spokesman for the California Department of Health Services, Sacramento.
"The next step is to evaluate how it could've gotten from the manure onto the spinach, so that's where we're at at this point," Bowman said. "There are still other investigations going on. It was just a significant finding since it's the first time we've traced any of them back and found a specific strain and the strain's very, very rare. It's a potential source and that's where we're taking that. We're looking further at that situation and how it could've gotten from there onto the spinach."