Will buffer zones between cows and veggies prevent another E. coli outbreak?
Thursday, February 1, 2007
Last week Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center in Oregon, told farmers gathered at Asilomar that the key to preventing another deadly E. coli outbreak is not more self-imposed regulation, but collaboration with livestock owners.
“I don’t believe farmers and food processors in California can solve this alone,” Benbrook told the audience at the 27th annual Eco-Farm Conference. “Part of the solution is going to entail changing how cattle are managed when they exist in and around important fruit and vegetable growing areas.”
It’s an idea that has taken hold in the Salinas Valley in the months since last fall’s outbreak, amid much confusion and with mixed popularity. Lou Calcagno, county supervisor and owner of Moonglow Dairy in Moss Landing, says in the last two or three months many Salinas Valley cattlemen have voluntarily removed animals from confined areas near productive ag land.
Calcagno sold 370 steers in mid-November, choosing to close down his feedlot rather than jeopardize his relationship with a neighboring farmer who grows artichokes and strawberries on an adjacent parcel. “We mutually agreed the cattle should go,” Calcagno says.
Calcagno says farmers are under enormous pressure and he’ll help them any way he can. But not everyone shares his view.
“I’m getting very disappointed and angry with this situation and the way it’s being handled,” says Soledad rancher Clem Albertoni, who recently sold 15 roping steers and horses that had been corralled near the fields after hearing that regulations were on the way barring confined cattle operations near crops.
Regulations may indeed be forthcoming. At press time, State Senator Dean Florez, a Central Valley Democrat, was set to introduce legislation establishing buffer zones between ag land and feed mandatory lots or dairies.
And last week, in an effort to keep farmers’ fates in their own hands, the Irvine-based agribusiness group Western Growers issued a set of guidelines for farmers wishing to market their produce under a state-certified food safety seal. The draft calls for 400 feet of separation between crops and animal feeding operations with 200 or more cattle, and 30 feet between crops and grazing land.
Will Daniels, quality assurance manager for Natural Selection Foods, understands the need for a robust response to the E. coli crisis. The San Juan Bautista-based company owns Earthbound Farm and the processing plant where spinach associated with last fall’s outbreak was bagged. It just started testing all final product for salmonella and E. coli, rounding out a rigorous food safety regimen that starts with testing seeds and soil.
Daniels says when it comes to protecting crops from nearby cattle operations, distance is not the only sensible metric. The facility’s reputation for cleanliness counts too, as does topography and general common sense. “If there’s a 4-H ranch and a huge hill between him and us—it’s a full assessment,” Daniels says.
Benbrook is quick to point out that animals and crops have long had an important symbiotic relationship, and that manure is an invaluable fertilizer. Totally segregating Monterey County’s 47,000 cattle from crops is not necessarily the answer. “The last thing any of us should want is for the general public to say, ‘OK, let’s put all the cattle in Wyoming and Colorado and Idaho and save California for crops.’”
Yet modern farming techniques are creating a health hazard. Benbrook says the research shows that virtually all E. coli O157:H7—the deadly strain that sickened 200 people last fall and killed at least three—originates in the guts of cattle under stress or on high-grain diets. Both factors tip the pH of a cow’s rumen toward an acidic environment favorable to the growth of O157.
Benbrook trots out another worrisome fact: the Centers for Disease Control estimate that E. coli O157 causes 52,000 cases of illness a year, about half from food contamination and the rest from water, direct contact with animals or even dust. Most of the victims don’t even know they had E. coli—just that they didn’t feel well after a particular meal.
“We could 100 percent eliminate E. coli from produce grown in the Salinas Valley and make a tiny dent in the number of cases that occur annually across the US,” he says.