Of Spinach, Lettuce, Water, E.Coli and Probable Cause?

From CBS News:

A popular brand of lettuce grown in California’s Salinas Valley, the region at the center of a nationwide spinach scare, has been recalled over concerns about E. coli contamination.

The lettuce does not appear to have caused any illnesses, according to the Salinas-based Nunes Co. Inc.

Executives ordered the recall Sunday after learning that irrigation water may have been contaminated with E. coli, Tom Nunes said.

And if you are to believe retired soil scientist Frank Pecarich over at California Progress Report, much of it might be related to the fact that Monterey County (the epicenter of the E.Coli outbreak) has been irrigating 12,000 acres of edible food crops with “tertiary treated sewage effluent water” since at least 1998. This project underwhich this process was introduced was called the “Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project” As the Monterey County website admits “The use of highly treated wastewater to irrigate landscaping has been practiced for years, yet for food crops, it is relatively new.” So new, in fact, that it’s only one of two irrigation systems in the world where sewage water is treated and then used for irrigation purposes at produce farms.

As Mr. Pecarich discovered, if one were to wonder what the USDA has learned about this sort of process, one need not look further than their 2005 Report on Groundwater Recharge and Wastewater Irrigation to Protect Crops and Groundwater, item 5:

Microbiological work in the earlier projects included a laboratory study to assess the survival and re-growth potential of bacteria present in tertiary-treated effluent as it passed through a model distribution system. The results demonstrated that population numbers of indicator bacterial organisms increased by three to four orders of magnitude over the 11-day length of the experiment. This research established that although the reclaimed water met EPA standards for irrigation at the treatment plant, there is great potential for bacterial re-growth during transport that could place the water out of compliance at the point of intended use. This work illustrated the critical need to understand the environmental fate of microorganisms and the potential for bacterial re-growth in reclaimed water used for crop irrigation so that future problems of food and groundwater contamination via wastewater irrigation can be prevented.

Let’s be clear here. I’m not saying that this is a cause. But it should at least be considered when talking about an industry that has produced 21 outbreaks of E.Coli over the past decade.

As the FBI gets involed in the case, it indicates that the government is looking beyond civil liability into the realm of criminal liability, and it’s dreadfully important that every avenue is explored in order to determine what went wrong. My fear, with the FBI involvement, is that they’re more interested in finding a scapegoat than they are the root cause.

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