Nestled between the Gabilan Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, California’s Salinas Valley—nourished by rich soils deposited by ancient rivers—is one of the most fertile regions on Earth. Most of the plots are still brown in late winter, but if you look closely, you can see hints of green, early markers of the bounty that is to come.
“That’s romaine lettuce,” says Joe Pezzini MBA ’83, the vice president of operations for Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms, pointing to a field dotted with tiny leaves just poking through the soil. “It’s still very young. We just planted it.” Come summer, he knows, the young lettuce and spinach and broccoli will all have reached their full measure, giving rise to the months-long harvest on which Monterey County’s $3.4 billion agriculture industry depends.
But Pezzini is still haunted by the year the expected bonanza never came. In September 2006, dozens of people all over the United States began to show up at hospitals with E. coli infections. Three people, including a 77-year-old woman in Wisconsin, died. When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to investigate, rummaging around in some of the victims’ fridges, it traced the outbreak to two spinach producers in central California’s “salad bowl”: Natural Selections Foods and River Ranch Fresh Foods.
Even after officials pinpointed the source of the problem, all of Salinas Valley’s fresh produce farmers remained in peril. Newspaper headlines continued to trumpet the hazards of fresh spinach, and supermarket shelves set aside for spinach remained empty. “Basically, if you were shipping spinach, you were out of business. No one wanted to buy it,” Pezzini remembers. “We grow a lot of spinach, and we didn’t know what to do with the spinach that was already in the ground. We ended up destroying much of it.”
The implications were clear. Whenever an E. coli or other bacterial scare broke out, every greens farmer suffered. “It was one or two companies’ responsibility,” Pezzini says, “but all of us were out of the marketplace.” At a meeting of local growers a few weeks after the incident, Pezzini stood up and argued it was time to develop a better set of food-safety standards within the greens-farming community. He was pleasantly surprised by his fellow growers’ enthusiasm for the idea. “Usually, when something like this happens, people hunker down and wait for it to pass. But what came out of that meeting was that we needed to raise the bar for the entire fresh-produce industry.”
Holes in safety net
It seems to happen all too often: An unsuspecting consumer eats a restaurant meal or maybe some fresh veggies from a roadside stand. A few hours later, she starts to feel sick—really sick. Her digestive system lurches into reverse gear, and she feels so weak and shaky she can barely get out of bed, let alone drag herself to work the next morning. If she’s lucky, she’ll start to feel a bit better within a day or two, and she’ll attempt to resume her life as if nothing happened.
There’s typically little public outcry over incidents like this. Food-poisoning scandals that actually make the news, like the California spinach scare, are few and far between. But one seemingly insignificant case at a time, the impact of food-borne illness adds up to something truly staggering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that tainted food makes 76 million Americans sick each year. Of those 76 million, about 5,000 die. “Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized because of food poisoning,” says Drew Starbird ’84, who has conducted extensive research on food safety and is serving as interim dean for the Leavey School of Business. “It has a significant impact on our productivity.”
People who contract food-borne illness have no choice but to wait out the misery, and Starbird sees this as a travesty. Most cases of such illness, he says, are unnecessary—and they happen primarily because of glaring deficits in the government’s regulatory system. He points to this winter’s notorious nationwide food poisoning scandal as a prime illustration of the problems. From September 2008 to February 2009, almost 700 people contracted salmonella and nine of them died. By mid-January, investigators from the FDA, the government agency currently in charge of food safety, pinned down the source of the epidemic: a nut-production plant in Georgia belonging to the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).
Subsequent investigations revealed that PCA had consistently swept food-safety concerns aside in an attempt to swell its profits. After examining company records, the Georgia Agricultural Commissioner Tommy Irvin declared that PCA had engaged in “lab shopping,” contracting multiple private labs to perform its salmonella testing until it obtained the desired negative result.
“The government has certified labs for food testing, but the companies get to pick which labs to use,” Starbird says—the practical equivalent of allowing Olympic athletes to choose their own drug-test providers. Food-industry insiders knew the peanut company was “a time bomb waiting to go off,” David Brooks, a snack-company buyer, told the Washington Post after the scandal broke.
But the PCA fiasco is by no means an isolated incident. “What the peanut case shows is that there are serious holes in our safety net for food,” says Erik Olson, director of chemical and food-safety programs at the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts.
So where has rot crept into the food safety regulatory system? Starbird thinks the problems start with pathogen-testing requirements that don’t specify what portion of a given food or food additive needs to be tested. “Sampling error is a huge unknown in the food industry. Producers are supposed to test ‘lots’ of food, but there’s no standard definition of what a ‘lot’ is. And testers could be taking samples that are not representative of the lot—it might be that they don’t sample frequently enough.” To date, the FDA has not conducted tests on the prevalence of sampling error. “We know sampling doesn’t work very well, but no one has measured the error, so we don’t know how big it is,” Starbird says. Additionally, firms aren’t required to report the results of pathogen tests to the FDA, meaning a positive test may languish in a company’s files for months without provoking a government inspection.
But the most glaring oversight of all, in Starbird’s view, is the absence of a standardized national system that traces the journey of every cut of meat and every bundle of produce from farm to table. A few individual food companies have implemented such tracking systems on their own, but for the most part, food producers do not use tracking codes that would enable regulators to identify their origins of their shipments instantly. “Firms aren’t motivated to correct this problem,” Starbird says. “They like to be anonymous—they don’t want to be the lone one responsible if something happens. So people get sick, and we might never find out where the problem came from. The people who are responsible don’t pay.”
The lack of enforceable testing or tracking requirements paves the way for disasters like the nationwide salmonella outbreak in the first half of 2008. Though hundreds of victims were filling sickrooms and hospitals by early summer, the FDA was initially unable to locate the source of the microbes. In July 2008, a full three months after the first food-poisoning case, inspectors located a facility with infected food—not a tomato-processing plant, as experts initially thought, but a plant that shipped jalapeño and serrano peppers from Mexico. Even after the plant agreed to recall its jalapeños, consumers continued to fall ill as products the plant had distributed reached other areas of the country.
Creeping legislative inertia may also have set the stage for the recent rash of food poisoning outbreaks. Food purification laws in the United States date back to 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the first Food and Drug Act. In the 1930s, the act was revised to include provisions that authorized factory inspections, as well as guidelines for food identity and quality. But since current food safety laws do not include provisions for reliable enforcement of safety guidelines, Olson argues that the laws have not changed in a meaningful way since before the Second World War. “There are limits to what the FDA can do without changes in the laws. They’re badly outdated,” he says. “Some of the basic problems date back 70 years or more. The FDA can’t recall foods that are contaminated on a mandatory basis, for example—they don’t have the authority to withdraw the producer’s license.”
Joe Pezzini has had firsthand experience with the current national regulatory system for most of his Salinas Valley farming career. Many California growers had good intentions of sticking to FDA regulations, he says, but since they were not routinely checked for their compliance in meeting a uniform set of standards, small safety issues tended to persist and mushroom into something bigger. “It’s not that food safety measures weren’t prevalent—they were. But the FDA only had guidelines. No enforcement programs at the farms even existed.”