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E. coli outbreak effects linger for leafy greens growers

Big E Produce in Lompoc, which grows red and green leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, cauliflower and broccolini, among other crops, is feeling a ripple effect from last year’s multistate E. coli outbreaks and subsequent recalls.

The company began receiving requests from customers for guarantees that its lettuces and products were safe, said Jose Gonzalez, who handles sales for the company. Customers also demanded that the produce be tested by laboratories against contamination. 

An E. coli outbreak between October and December resulted in 62 reported illnesses from 16 states and the District of Columbia.

Illnesses were also reported in Canada. The contamination was traced to an Adam Bros. Farming Inc. farm in Santa Barbara County.
In the spring, romaine lettuce from Yuma, Ariz., triggered an E. coli outbreak in which five people died, 96 people were hospitalized and 210 people were reported as infected from 36 states.

Gonzalez said he’s also noticing more governmental inspectors, and the company has taken measures to protect the fields from potential outside factors, including installing 13-foot fences and hiring a guard to walk around the crops at night.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture announced in February on-farm inspections at large farms — those with $500,000 or more in sales — will start in April under guidelines going into effect this year to validate compliance with the Produce Safety Rule of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.

Henry Gonzales, agricultural commissioner for Monterey County, the nation’s “salad bowl,” which includes Salinas, oversees its $4.4 billion agriculture industry.

He will be looking to see whether romaine lettuce acreage dropped for the 2018 fall crop, which could suggest growers reacted to the romaine-related E. coli outbreaks with fewer plantings. 

Romaine accounts for about 60% of the county’s leaf lettuce category, Gonzales said, which, with a value of $830 million in 2017, was the county’s most valuable crop.

“Growers may look to grow other crops than romaine,” he said. “But when they do that, it impacts other crops as well.”

Growers in the county are also taking drastic measures to address the continued labor shortage — one of the biggest issues, Gonzales added. They are increasingly turning to the H-2A program to find workers, and taking housing into their own hands to supply workers with affordable places to live.

Measures include renting whole hotels for a season to house their workers, while others have built hundreds of housing units — replete with laundry rooms and soccer fields, he said. Other growers have bought apartment complexes.

“Because of the crops we grow — the spring crops and berries — there’s so much hand labor, you have to have farm workers, and if you have to have workers, you have to have housing,” he said. 

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