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Brussels sprouts at Muzzi Farm in Pescadero, Calif., Friday, October 12, 2007. (Ron Lewis/San Mateo County Times)
When an E. coli outbreak caused a crisis at lettuce farms in the Salinas Valley last fall, San Mateo County farmers gave thanks that their biggest crops, artichokes and Brussels sprouts, are cooked before being consumed.

But farmers learned at a recent food safety workshop co-sponsored by the San Mateo County Farm Bureau and the county Health Department that they may have more to fear than they thought.

"Even though a lot of these products could be cooked, there may be, down the road, food safety legislation that would not exempt any fresh food or vegetable," said Mike Villaneva, an analyst with the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis.

Villaneva came to the recent farm workshop to educate local farmers about the tightened food safety rules governing their counterparts in San Benito and Monterey counties since last September, when a dangerous strain of E. coli in bagged spinach sickened dozens of people in 26 states.

Following the outbreak, more than 100 vegetable handlers formed a voluntary market agreement that mandated growers of leafy greens to adopt a long list of operating standards to reduce the risk of E. coli exposure.

These included submitting to frequent audits by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testing irrigation water every month and making sure manure-based fertilizer is fully composted and analyzed before being used.


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Since feral pigs roaming through the vegetable fields were thought to be one of the causes of the outbreak, the new rules also mandate fences around fields and require a minimum distance between grazing livestock and vegetables planted nearby.

While the current rules don't affect them, Villaneva warned San Mateo County farmers that they ought to take note.

"If we continue to have outbreaks, those groups that aren't on the radar screen will have to make the case that there shouldn't be regulation," he said.

Coastside farmers say they already abide by a set of food safety practices that their buyers — mostly large and medium-sized chain supermarkets — began requiring of them five years ago.

David Lea, owner of Cabrillo Farms in San Gregorio, is one of several large-scale growers who pays a private firm to conduct a food safety audit of his farm every year.

He also follows a list of "best practices" recommended by the Food and Drug Administration. His workers wear latex gloves and aprons when they're packing vegetables, and no food is allowed on the premises. When out in the field, workers are required to use a portable toilet that is always close at hand, complete with hand washing facilities and towels. If a worker cuts himself, he must stop work immediately and report to a supervisor.

These rules seem like common sense to Lea, who attended the recent farming workshop. But adding the larger precautions required of his colleagues in the Salinas Valley was deemed both unaffordable and impractical.

"It always makes me nervous. You're always concerned about the impact it will have in the industry, and the rules and regulations coming down," he said.

Half Moon Bay farmer John Giusti has erected fences around some of his fields in addition to the same basic audits and safety standards Lea maintains. It helps him keep the deer out, but there's nothing he can do to prevent the seagulls flying overhead from targeting the occasional artichoke.

"You just have to discard anything that has any bird droppings on it. We do struggle with that quite a bit," said Giusti.

It's impossible to control every condition in an open field, he added.

"I think there's lot of overkill going on. You're dealing with Mother Nature here. I don't care how sanitized we keep everything — it will happen again," he predicted.

Joe Muzzi and his sons have been farming leeks, beans and Brussels sprouts in their Pescadero fields for decades. Since the E. coli outbreak in Salinas, they've had more frequent audits and begun chlorinating their irrigation water. They're also phasing out the use of chicken manure, which they carefully compost for four or five months before doing a planting. 

While he's paying for upgrades and audits, Muzzi is irked by the fact that both smaller vegetable growers and international growers are largely exempt.

"When they start shipping in from other countries ... that gets us. We're going through all these regulations and it's costly," he said.

Villaneva acknowledged that the FDA inspects less than 2 percent of all imported produce from countries like Mexico. Like the food handlers in Salinas who chose to regulate their own market, and the supermarket companies that require San Mateo County farmers to undergo audits, the safety standards applying to foreign vegetables are industry-driven.

"There are assessments being done, but only on the biggest growers. There is some oversight there, but the federal government's not doing anything on that," he said.

A series of bills were put forward to gain greater government regulation over the leafy green industry, most recently by state Sen. Dean Florez. His three bills, which failed in the Assembly earlier this year, pushed the industry to adopt the voluntary self-regulation standards.

Villaneva called the self-regulation model a "pilot" program that may yet prove inadequate.

"There's always going to be government interest in getting its foot in the door," he said.

That would disappoint Giusti, who has never had an E. coli problem on his farm.

"I'm hoping we're doing a good enough job here that we don't have to have regulations put on us," he said. "Usually when the government does something, they mess it up."

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340 or at julia.scott@bayareanewsgroup.com.