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In Defense Of Salinas

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 4, 2006

Now that the recommendation not to eat spinach has been lifted, the mood in the Salinas Valley is turning from fear to outrage.

Talk with John R. Baillie of the Jack T. Baillie Co., Baillie Family Farms and Tri-County Packing, and you can hear in the cadence of his voice the fierce pride of a third-generation farmer in the valley. His grandfather was great friends with Cy Mann, and John hypothesized about what the two of them would have done in a situation like this.

Let us be subtle and say that John felt they would go on the offensive.

John, who sits on the Monterey County Reservoir Operations Committee, is furious about all the news reports tying together the Salinas River and E. coli. And, consequently, impugning the safety of what the valley produces.

He has five points, all of which are good ones:

  1. Generic E. coli is probably in every river in the country at one time or another since all it takes is one errant deer and you can have some E. coli. But the concern is for E. coli 0157:H7, and in many years of receiving water reports, John has never heard of them finding this pathogen in the river. The presence of E. coli in Salinas more than elsewhere is, as he correctly points out, completely without support.
  2. Even if they did find it in the river, that wouldn’t be relevant as the Salinas Valley has what John believes to be one of the safest water supplies in the word. Over 200,000 acres are irrigated not with river water but with well water drawn from 400 feet below the surface. Filtered through the soil and drawn from deep underground, this water is difficult to contaminate. That other growing regions have safer water supplies is, once again, completely without support.
  3. The State of California, John explains, so strictly regulates farming that farmers in many other areas of the country would be shocked at the paperwork and various requirements. The notion that other growing areas produce safer product is, once again, completely without support.
  4. Much has been made of growing on land that has been flooded. But John points out that prior to the development of a local dam system, virtually all the valley was flooded at various times without any known impact on safety. There is talk of banning growing crops on land that has been flooded, but John asks if it wouldn’t make sense to actually find E. coli 0157:H7 on land before banning the use of an asset that feeds so many people? After all river beds, from the Nile down, have been rich farmland precisely because periodic flooding deposits rich soil on the ground.
  5. John doesn’t really care what food safety protocols the government or buyers wish to impose. He is certain that he and farmers in the rest of the Salinas Valley can compete on a level playing field with anyone in the world. But he takes enormous exception to the idea that there should be special food safety protocols just for the Salinas Valley. Once again, he points out that there is no evidence for the idea that growing in any other place is safer than growing in the Salinas Valley.

The Pundit thinks John is right on target. We’ve written both here and here about how Salinas is being victimized for being the biggest. The large volumes produced and processed in the Salinas Valley are distorting all the food safety statistics.

And people at the FDA, who should be ashamed of themselves, never bother to put food safety statistics in perspective. They should never mention the number of outbreaks from any area without mentioning the production quantity of that area, and the people at FDA should never mention the percentage of sick people who can be traced to one area without mentioning what percentage of production that area represents.

The danger now is not that strict food safety standards will be enforced but that they will be enforced selectively against one group of farmers and that the chosen steps won’t enhance food safety at all but just be done because the FDA and the California Department of Health Services feels the need to do something.

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