For the latest updates on the E. coli outbreak in Oregon and the issues surrounding it, please see our Aug. 12 story: Strawberry investigation continues, sparks Tester Amendment discussion.
The grower of strawberries linked to an E. coli-related death of a woman in Oregon did not violate state law by selling berries to vendors, but some people who re-sold 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 Vance Bybee, Food Safety Division administrator, 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 that 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.
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 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.”
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.”
Thirteen 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, Oregon, 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.