An effort to keep deadly contaminants out of leafy green vegetables in California after an outbreak of E.coli in 2006 has instead contributed to environmental degradation while providing questionable safety advantages, according to a report published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
Three people died and more than 200 people were sickened seven years ago when they ate bagged Dole Baby Spinach traced to a farm in Salinas Valley. Shortly after the outbreak, a joint study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) pointed a finger at field contamination from wild pigs, surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife, and irrigation wells used to grow produce for ready-to-eat packaging.
California led the way in formulating common-sense rules for keeping animal contaminants away from produce that inspired similar regulations across the country. Farmers cleared the land of native vegetation, built fences and poisoned certain areas to discourage wildlife from crapping up the land. Fences were installed across 75% of the 20 wildlife corridors examined by researchers.
It worked, sort of. At least, the wildlife disappeared. In the process, pollution increased as pesticides and fertilizers had a clearer path to water sources, soil erosion buffers disappeared, and the land became more vulnerable to flooding and the future ravages of global warming. In the ensuing five years, 13.3% of the riverside and wetland habitat was eliminated or degraded, leaving the world safe for bagged lettuce.
Or did it?
E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a bacterium often found in the intestines and colon of warm-blooded animals. There are more than 700 mostly harmless variations, but some can be highly toxic.
According to the study, which was conducted by the Nature Conservancy and the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the impact of these measures on the incidence of E.coli is still not known. More than half the 15 subsequent outbreaks of E.coli have occurred in California.