November 3, 2006.
Deadly Pathogens and Science vs. PR and Politics: Spinach in Monterey County
By Frank Pecarich
Retired Soil Scientist
It seems like months have passed since the United States first found out that the potentially lethal E.coli 0157H:7
pathogen had once again infiltrated our supply of fresh spinach and people were getting sick and some dying. Our little
band of scientists has been busy since that time analyzing these phenomena which have been going on in the Salinas
Valley for the past 10 years with toxic pathogen outbreaks in 9 of those 10 years.
At first, our analysis clearly spied the flaws in the agriculture infrastructure and system of growing our fresh vegetable
food supply. I have written three articles at this web site on all the gory details of why irrigating fresh leafy green
vegetables with treated sewage effluent intended to be consumed raw was a horrible idea. We have also pointed out
that the scientific literature is clear on the inability of tertiary treatment of sewage water to completely eradicate E. coli
By now I think we have amply discussed that point ad nauseam. Now it comes to looking at what should be done and
what was the sequence of bad decision inputs that allowed us to get into this "Alice in Wonderland" situation.
As we look deeper to see how this classic example of a bad idea got worse, we find that there are many groups of
people who have their "finger prints on the bloody knife", so to speak.
It seems clear that a number of years ago, citizens and governmental entities facing upgrading crumbling water delivery
and water treatment infrastructures were staggered at the estimated costs of those investments. It was apparent that all
sorts of new revenue sources had to be examined in order to keep from imposing heavy annual costs on the local public.
Instead of facing the music then, they embarked on what is essentially an experiment – using "recycled water "to irrigate
contamination-vulnerable crops and as an added benefit, recharge the groundwater. I call this a failed experiment at this
point in time, but others are slow to come to that conclusion. It's going to take a little longer to wait out all the flailing
about that normally occurs when "believers' have been confronted with a different reality.
The phenomenon of disavowing reality is what we are seeing with Monterey County officials who may have mistakenly
believed that it was actually a good idea to irrigate vegetable crops consumed raw with tertiary treated sewage effluent.
They are struggling with this like a well-caught fish on a hook. As they say, "they can run but they can't hide".
Just for "fun" – we must strive to find shreds of humor in all this – let's look at today's issue of the Monterey County
Herald, the apologist local newspaper for the Monterey County E. coli CSIP disaster. Today they write of yet another
"let's hold a we-can-eat-this-spinach-and-not-die" PR festival.
In an article subtitled, Sprucing up spinach's tainted reputation they report that, "On Wednesday, in an effort to give the
industry a boost, more than 60 people gathered at Laguna Seca Country Club to eat spinach." The article goes on to
say, "In addition to those who ate fresh spinach donated by King City-based Metz Fresh, 12 people ordered spinach
salads to go. The lunch crowd included local attorneys, bankers, business people and schoolteachers, as well as
representatives from the agriculture industry."
Well, isn't that special? While the Feds and State Department of Health are covering this health fiasco up "akin to 'Kudzu
covers Dixie like the dew'", the locals are repeatedly trying to "PR" their way out of this disaster. Remember when local
Monterey County Congressman Sam Farr tried to stage a press conference with him eating spinach and wasn't able to
find any in the grocery stores?
Well, they're still trying to "shuck and jive" their way out of this mess weeks later.
And we in the science community just keep recycling the same facts that we covered weeks ago. Those are expressed
in my earlier work on this website and I see no reason to repeat them.
You know what they say; the definition of "insane" is repeating the same behavior, expecting a different outcome. So,
lest I behave insanely, the facts are in and all those officials in incriminating situations are going to struggle like the
symbolic fish, hooked and being reeled in for the frying pan.
Let's take a look at some of the consequences of this Monterey County bad decision. First, I think it is clear now that the
Castroville Sea Water Intrusion Project (CSIP) will ultimately have to be shut down. It is obvious that there have been
annual summer outbreaks of E. coli 0157H: 7 virtually every year since its inception. In fact, the FDA has been so
confident in those future events that weeks ago they labeled this problem "systemic" and predicted that a 21st outbreak
would occur. How's that for predictive confidence?
What makes them so confident? Well, they know the facts and the implications and they are sitting on that information,
for political reasons I believe, in spite of the food safety danger to the populace. In any event when that statement was
made I thought, "They know and aren't saying…"
OK, so 12,000 acres of some of the richest and most productive farmland in the world will have to undergo a major
revision in land use. Instead of growing pathogen susceptible leafy green and tissue tender cool season vegetables like
spinach and lettuce, these growers will have to search for substitute crops which somehow minimize the hazards of using
treated sewage effluent as the source of irrigation water.
Boy, that's a big symbolic hit in the solar plexus right there. Spinach and lettuce are high profit crops and the whole
industry is set up with packing operations, trucking and other infrastructure to support that cropping pattern in the
Salinas Valley. Now we tell them that they can't grow those crops? Ouch, that's enough to make you cry!
OK, if that's true what else is a problem? Well, the irrigation wells in the area are continuing to "salt up" and become
unusable, so some other source of water will have to be sought if crops like lettuce and spinach are the desired choices
by growers. That means, in my way of thinking, moving to imported water as the fresh water source for those vegetables.
But wait, importing water from the Central Valley over those mountains and that distance will be expensive? Oh, you bet,
and maybe prohibitively so. Last week at a meeting with some retired US Bureau of Reclamation friends, speculation
was that we would be looking at $500 an acre foot cost of water delivered at the farm site. My math says if that were
true, not many crops could be grown with such a high water cost element.
So then what? Maybe the best use for those 12,000 acres is housing? I don't really know of course, but the thought
process and analysis will have to be done and I suspect that many have begun to do that already.
We are looking at major economic dislocation and adjustment -- this because of a series of bad decisions based on bad
science and bad analysis.
Let me also tell you about some of the things we have discovered since my last writing. First I have discovered that the
federal government has been subsidizing the irrigating of agricultural crops with "recycled water". For example, the CSIP
distribution system was built with federal money administered by the US Bureau of Reclamation (BOR).
My friends in the BOR were quick to tell me that they weren't examining nor were they responsible for the science or the
intellectual integrity of the CSIP. Their job was to simply determine if the loaned money to CSIP by the feds had a good
chance of being repaid to the US Treasury. In that way, they said, they were much like a bank examining a loan for a
So the CSIP apparently has a loan obligation to pay for the construction of the 45 miles of pipeline and pumps, etc. My
sense is that repayment capability of Monterey County is looking weaker with every day as it becomes clear that major
alterations to land use and economic outcomes within the CSIP are highly likely.
As we can already discern, Congressman Sam Farr undoubtedly has been a supporter of CSIP for years. He was a
Monterey County Board of Supervisor Member from 1975 – 1981 and I feel certain that an examination of the voting
record would show him in favor of CSIP concepts. Additionally I feel certain that we will find his "John Hancock" on CSIP
approval documents as a Congressman.
That was my first inclination when I read he squealed like a stuck pig, when he discovered California State Senator Dean
Florez was deeply disturbed with this recent 9th outbreak of E. coli 0157H:7 in the last 10 years. He was quoted in the
Monterey Herald as saying some pretty strong words about his fellow Democrat, Senator Florez.
I figured it had to be a pretty strong emotional feeling behind his lack of decorum and "losing his cool" in front of the
press like that. I then figured, "Sam, you have something to hide". And guess what? I still think he does have much to
hide and after these weeks of research, there is much for him to account for to the public.
While we're at it, let me also tell you that I was able to find evidence in the press that at least one major San Benito
County farm and food processor has been irrigating lettuce with "recycled" water. In a December 30, 2004 article the
San Juan Bautista-based Pride of San Juan Company was featured in the Hollister Free Lance newspaper. As the
biggest employer in San Benito County and only having been in existence since 1995, the story told of major expansions.
The article says, "When Stephen Wyrick started the company nine years ago, he farmed alone on 13 acres. Today,
over 500 employees farm approximately 15,000 acres in peak season in San Juan Valley and Yuma, where the
company's second facility is located." The article goes on to say, "Although Pride of San Juan would not release its
annual sales figures, the company comprises a significant amount of the county's $25 million a year lettuce crop,
according to the San Benito County Agricultural Commissioner's office."
And then the very next sentence states, "Pride of San Juan also prides itself on sustainable farming and uses recycled
water in their fields - the first agricultural business in California to do so with the approval of the regional water board,
said Peter Trentz," Peter Trentz is earlier identified as the CFO for the Company.
Wow, I thought, the largest producer of lettuce in San Benito County uses "recycled water" to irrigate these E. coli
0157H:7 vulnerable crops? And there was the information right in the local newspaper and freely available on the
Do you still wonder, I ask rhetorically, why I frequently refer to these federal and state "investigators" as Junior Inspector
Clouseaus? In other words, if these people are "protecting" our food supply, what would it look like if we received no
protection? Or as a good friend once asked, "how could you tell?"
EPA by the way, defines recycled water thusly:
"Water recycling is reusing treated wastewater for beneficial purposes such as agricultural and landscape So it looks like, while the Junior Inspector Clouseaus were chasing down cow pies and wild pigs in San Benito County, a
irrigation, industrial processes, toilet flushing, and replenishing a ground water basin (referred to as ground
through reading of the local newspapers would have proved beneficial. It has already been established in the literature
and research that E.coli 0157H:7 can survive tertiary treatment. The Pride of San Juan Company may be a problem with
past or future E. coli 0157H:7 outbreaks.
However with all the secrecy involved in these "investigations" very few are allowed any information about where these
suspicious farms and processing plants are located. If people weren't dying, this would be funny.
So the evidence is already in place to make the proper public administration decisions. However, it appears those
decisions will take a long time in coming, given the current state of denial by the major players. I plan to stop writing for
awhile until, as the saying goes, "they come to their senses".
A whole lot of people are spending untold hours working on "damage control". Just this week, the Western Growers
trade association came forth with their plan to subject agricultural operations in the Monterey area and elsewhere to the
oversight of … more government agencies.
Well, wait, we might say! These folk in the Western Growers association want us to believe that even though federal and
state agencies were responsible in the past for oversight of their vegetable production, and since that didn't work out,
we should believe that all these people will do it better next time?
In fact the latest news about this proposal says that Western Growers want the FDA and the USDA involved in their little
plan. But wait, isn't that the same FDA who didn't even send a representative to Senator Dean Florez California Senate
Hearing on this subject on October 11th? Well, yes it is the same FDA and their excuse that day was that they had no
one free to attend! Heck, they have 3000+ employees… what is it about doing their job that they don't seem to
Hey, I'm not your average fool. No siree… They are asking for another one last chance to do what is right and asking us
to believe that virtually the same people we now mock as Junior Inspector Clouseaus will somehow clean up their act.
Maybe they might graduate to full fledged Inspector Clouseaus but I believe the stakes are far too high to be seduced
by their promises to be good boys and girls this time around.
We owe diligence to the memory of 2 year old Kyle Allgood who died of E. coli 0157H:7 pathogen infection after his
mother trustingly gave him a fresh spinach smoothie with spinach involved in this latest (20th) outbreak. We need to
deal with this issue and deal with it now. For those choosing PR and politics instead of pathogens and science, let's
make sure we deal with them too.
Frank Pecarich retired from the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1987. During his 26
year federal career he worked as a soil scientist with the USDA on the now- published Soil Survey for Monterey County.
He lives in Ventura County.