California's farming industry is girding for another potential black eye after a second outbreak this year of a potentially deadly E. coli strain linked to its crops.
Green onions served in Taco Bell restaurants are suspected as the source of dozens of illnesses in the Eastern U.S. and the fast-food chain has called for an industry review of the produce supply chain stretching to California.
The onions came from the seaside region around Oxnard in Southern California. The small city on the edge of the greater Los Angeles area is surrounded by acres and acres of strawberry
farms and fields growing onions, lettuce and other crops.
Farming is a major business in the area, as it is in much of California, the No. 1 U.S. agricultural producing and exporting state, where vegetables make up nearly a quarter of the $31.8 billion in 2005 farm revenue generated by the state.
"Everyone Is Concerned"
"Everyone is real concerned about this," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, the state's largest agricultural trade group.
The latest E. coli outbreak followed a similar scare in supermarkets in September that was eventually tied to spinach grown in California's Salinas Valley.
The spinach scare a few months ago had sent growers scrambling to do better. They were already developing food safety guidelines when the latest illnesses hit the headlines last week.
Oxnard's Boskovich Farms supplied the onions to Ready Pac Foods, a food processor for Yum Brands unit Taco Bell. Responding to food poisoning cases in recent weeks traced to its restaurants, Taco Bell tested the onions, found three samples were "presumptive positive" for E. coli and is no longer serving green onions at its 5,800 U.S. restaurants.
A Boskovich spokeswoman confirmed the onions were grown in in the vicinity of Ventura County's largest city. "That is correct -- grown in Oxnard," Lindsay Martinez told Reuters.
While the findings are not conclusive -- Taco Bell is conducting more tests -- and Ready Pac's daily safety tests of produce it handles for Taco Bell did not show contamination, California farmers are concerned.
"If they had three positive samples, chances are it's the real thing," said Dean Cliver, a food safety expert at the University of California, Davis.
"I find that very persuasive," Cliver said, noting the E. coli strain is found only in "exceptional circumstances."
Farms Are Inspected
The possibility that California produce may be the source of a second E. coli outbreak in four months has triggered a fresh round of inspections at farms, packaging plants and distribution centers in the state -- seeking to isolate how the strain may be entering the food supply-chain.
"Nobody is trying to duck and cover," said Tim Chelling, spokesman for the Western Growers Association.
E. coli is a pathogen present in livestock that has emerged as the leading cause of hemorrhagic colitis in humans. Its symptoms of bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps may progress into hemolytic uremic syndrome, a form of kidney failure that can lead to serious kidney damage, or death.
The state's spinach growers have seen demand contract sharply since September after about 200 people became sick and three died after eating spinach tainted by the strain. Investigators believe wild pigs may have transmitted the strain from a cattle pasture to fields where the spinach was grown.
California health officials discount a connection between the two outbreaks and, citing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, say it is too early to assign blame for the Taco Bell outbreak to green onions grown in their state.
"FDA is obtaining samples of all non-meat items served in the restaurants that could carry the pathogen," the agency said in a statement. Taco Bell's tests indicated the "possible
presence" of E. coli but are not conclusive, it added.