With sprouts from an organic farm sickening thousands in Europe, farmers here in Humboldt County say they are the front line -- perhaps the only line -- of defense against diseases that can hitch a ride on the healthiest of foods.
Those wholesome veggies that should be filling every plate can carry an invisible cargo of disease, just waiting for you to take a big bite and invite them inside. Especially problematic are leafy greens like spinach and lettuce, and sandwich regulars like cucumbers, tomatoes and sprouts.
Humboldt County hasn't seen any recent major outbreaks of common, food-borne diseases, according to the Humboldt Department of Health and Human Services. And if an outbreak did occur here, farmers say, it would likely be traced quickly.
In Germany, multiple federal and local agencies recently struggled for more than a month to locate and contain a deadly strain of E. coli, which killed 36 people and sickened more than 3,000. At times, German officials pointed fingers at cucumbers from Spain, lettuce, and tomatoes before finally announcing that the disease came from sprouts grown on an organic farm in northern Germany.
Here in Humboldt, a mystery wouldn't linger that long, said McKinleyville lettuce grower George Waller. All the local farmers know who's who and what they grow, he said, and produce usually travels directly from farmer to consumer. If there were contaminated produce, it likely wouldn't go very far.
Kathy McDonald, a Fieldbrook farmer, said much of disease prevention comes down to common sense. "You handle it the right way, you keep it cold, you don't fertilize it with manure," McDonald said. "I think all of our local farmers want to put a good product out there."
Inspection, however, is minimal according to Waller. "In the market there is a county guy that comes by occasionally to check the paperwork," Waller said. "As far as my backyard, there hasn't been any oversight in 2 ½ years." He paused. "I got something in the mail from the county that said I was subject to inspection." Nobody has been by, though, he said.
Because farmers are a close-knit but commercially competitive community, he said, "the oversight probably comes a lot from your peers."
Yet leaving consumer safety up to farmers leaves a lot of room for error, according to Jeff Nelken, a Los Angeles-based food safety expert. "I'm not a strong advocate of people policing themselves," he said.
At farms large and small, there are many potential sources of contamination, including runoff, wild animals and wind-blown contaminants, Nelken said, adding that farmers could probably use some help with making sure their produce is safe.
"A lot of people think that these small farmers, these organic farmers, are safer," he said. "And it's not necessarily true."
To backstop the farmers, a web of agencies deals with different aspects of food safety, with each seemingly not quite sure what the others are doing. Humboldt Agriculture Commissioner Jeff Dolf initially thought that the county Department of Health and Human Services was in charge of checking that local farms are free of disease and potential contaminants.
Yet the health and human services branch that inspects restaurants to make sure they're serving up safe food in a clean place doesn't routinely set foot on farms, said Mike Goldsby, senior program manager for the county. He thought the agricultural commissioner might do that, although he wasn't sure.
Others in the county suggested the state of California might have that job. But Norma Arceo, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health in Sacramento, said her department has handed that job off to counties.
The county agriculture department does some health-related work, Dolf said, conducting an annual inspection at all farmers' markets to make sure county health rules are being followed. For example, no boxes containing food are allowed to touch the ground, so the inspector checks to see that empty boxes are placed between the ground and the boxes with food in them. The food itself, however, is not inspected. The agriculture department also occasionally visits local farms, but its focus is on confirming that farmers are producing what they say they are.
Dolf echoed Waller's opinion that the local farmers are effective at self-regulating. "The thing about smaller markets is that the vendors are in competition," said Dolf. "If someone is representing product that they didn't produce or is cutting corners otherwise, we hear about it. Up here, the growers know each other." As evidence that the system is working well, he points to the lack of documented food-borne disease outbreaks.
Local instances of food poisoning are rare, according to the county Department of Health and Human Services. In an average year, around four cases of E. coli, 14 cases of salmonella, and 20 cases of campylobacteriosis are reported.
Still, a large outbreak from Humboldt produce is "certainly a possibility," just as it is anywhere that vegetables are grown, said county public health nurse Eric Gordon.
The public health department gets involved in outbreaks once a disease has been detected. When a doctor orders a lab test on a patient and the test comes back positive for food poisoning, the doctor and the lab both notify public health, at which point communicable disease nurses like Gordon interview the patients to start trying to find the source. "Prevention activities occur once we talk to people with symptoms," said Gordon.
Dolf said that the days of true self-regulation might be coming to an end, at the hand of the vegetable industry itself. The trend is towards more self-imposed regulation, he said, citing the 2007 California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement as an example. Produce growers and shippers can voluntarily sign up with Leafy Greens. Once they become a member, they are subject to auditing by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The producers and shippers are rewarded by the Leafy Greens certification.
In the meantime, Dolf said he's not sweating about the risk of disease from local produce. "I'm convinced that everybody is very conscientious," he said. "I believe that the local produce is safe."
SIDEBAR: When veggies go vicious
Most common food-borne pathogens:
Vegetables most commonly contaminated:
Sources of contamination:
E. coli - fecal matter (runoff, animals, contaminated water, unwashed hands)
Campylobacter - possibly more than 50 percent of chickens are infected, in addition to wild birds and cows (spread through direct contact or contaminated water)
Salmonella - naturally occurs in the intestines of many animals (unhygienic kitchen conditions, improperly thawed fowl, standing water)