(UPDATED COVERAGE, 5:30 p.m.) Initial test results in Oregon show that E. coli is present in deer droppings collected from the Jaquith Strawberry Farm where strawberries were harvested and sold via farmstands and farmers markets and later linked to an E. coli outbreak.
William Keene, senior epidemiologist with the Oregon Public Health Division, said Aug. 12 the initial results on 10 of more than 100 samples collected at the farm Aug. 6 came back positive for E. coli. However, more extensive tests must be done to verify that the E. coli strain is the same as the one that sickened 14 people.
Seven people were hospitalized and two remain in the hospital. One elderly woman died from kidney failure related to the E. coli infection.
Keene said officials are increasingly confident that they will be able to confirm that deer were the source of the contamination.
"There is no evidence that the farmer's practices were sub-standard," Keene said.
As for preventing future outbreaks, Keene said there is no sure method.
"Our best line of defense may turn out to be probability theory," the scientist said. "There are millions and millions of people who eat fresh produce every day and don't get sick."
The grower of the strawberries did not violate state law by selling berries to vendors, but some people who resold the berries at farmers markets might have broken a licensing regulation.
The administrator for the Food Safety Division of the Oregon Agriculture Department said whether the licensing law was violated will be investigated after public safety issues are resolved.
“I want to be perfectly clear, Jaquith (Strawberry Farm) didn’t violate any rules or statutes,” said food safety division administrator Vance Bybee on Aug. 10, adding that media reports stating resellers violated state law were premature.
“The law is much more complicated than that. … What we are doing right now is trying to find all of the berries and alert the public that they should throw out any they still have. That is what we are 150% involved in right now.”
Oregon law requires resellers to be licensed through the state’s agriculture department. The licensing process involves food safety inspections. Staff in the department have been tracking resellers of the strawberries and is compiling a list, which is updated daily on the department website, http://tinyurl.com/Oregon-strawberries.
Officials believe the berries were contaminated by deer in at least one of the growing fields owned by Joe and Jerrie Jaquith. A phone call to the Jaquiths on Aug. 10 was picked up by an answering machine, which had a message indicating its memory was full.
Media in the area near the 35-acre Newberg, Ore., farm reported Joe Jaquith issued the following statement: “The Jaquith Strawberry Farm, a fourth-generation family farm rooted in Oregon agriculture, is deeply saddened by this tragic event and is committed to fully cooperating with Oregon Public Health’s investigation of the E. coli outbreak.”
The story has gained national attention and many media outlets are reporting this is the first time fresh strawberries have been linked to an E. coli outbreak. Calls to the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seeking to verify that statement were not immediately returned.
However, produce industry officials say this is the first time they recall such an outbreak linked to fresh strawberries.
“We discussed it around the table here and none of us could remember a previous case,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission.
Outbreak stirs debate about Tester Amendment
The E. coli outbreak has again raised questions about exemptions for small farms and farmstands from regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Because of the relatively small size of the growing operation involved, some associated with the fresh produce industry are hoping the Oregon case will renew discussions of possible repeal of the Tester Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the amendment exempts operations that have less than $500,000 in annual sales from food safety provisions in the act. Calls to the senator’s Washington, D.C., staff member who handles food safety issues were not immediately returned.
“I think we can safely say that this is a clear indication that size of operation does not matter when it comes to food safety responsibility. We maintain that there is no place for exemptions related to size of a particular operation,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.
The Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., has a similar view. Kathy Means, PMA’s vice president of government relations and public affairs, reiterated the association’s position opposing the Tester Amendment and echoed Guenther’s comments.
“We’ve seen some discussion in the last few days on the implications of the foodborne illness outbreak in Oregon linked to E. coli and strawberries from a 35-acre farm that did mostly farm stand and you-pick distribution,” Means said Aug. 11.
“We’ve had questions about what this means for the Tester Amendment in the Food Safety Modernization Act. … Of course, the Tester Amendment is part of FSMA, and only Congress can change that. What will be interesting is how FDA interprets Tester and what regulations it proposes to implement it.”
Hank Giclas, senior vice president for science and technology at Western Growers Association in Sacramento, Calif., said the association continues to maintain its position against the Tester Amendment but declined to comment specifically on the Oregon outbreak.
“We firmly believe that pathogens do not discriminate between small and large operations, Giclas said. “We will be looking at the produce rule that is due to be published in the first quarter of 2012 because it may provide some opportunities for inclusion (of small operations.
On Aug. 8 the Oregon Public Health Division issued a warning about E. coli illnesses in Clatsop, Multnomah and Washington counties that were linked to strawberries bought at Jaquith Strawberry Farm’s roadside stands or area farmers markets.
None of the strawberries remain for sale, according to state health officials. But Paul Cieslak, a doctor from the health division’s Office of Disease Prevention and Epidemiology, said the danger has not necessarily passed.
“If you have any strawberries from this producer — frozen, in uncooked jam or in any uncooked form — throw them out,” Cieslak said in the warning letter.
Cieslak said the state health division is the lead investigating agency because the outbreak is contained within Oregon. He said state officials notified the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and that both agencies are “watching with interest.”
Fourteen people have been confirmed as having the specific strain of E. coli involved. Tests on another person are pending. All became sick July 10-29. One elderly woman in Washington County died from kidney failure associated with the E. coli infection.
Cieslak said the operators of Jaquith Strawberry Farm are cooperating with the investigation and recalled all their product. He said his best guess as of Aug. 9 was that the contamination was the result of deer wandering into a growing field.
“We do have reports that deer were seen in one of the farm’s fields,” Cieslak said. “The farmer has several fields and the you-pick field was picked clean, but no illnesses were reported by people who ate berries from that field.”
Inspectors from the state health division “spent a lot of time at the farm” collecting samples and checking for contamination sources, Cieslak said. Results from the field test samples are still pending, but Cieslak said the investigators did not find any sanitary problems.
A message on the Jaquith Strawberry Farm answering machine states that the farm season is over and the farmstand closed July 9.
All of the berries were sold fresh at roadside stands, area farmers markets and from the you-pick field at Jaquith Strawberry Farm.