The E. coli cases related to Oregon strawberries could de-romanticize small farms — but probably not.

In this foodborne illness outbreak, Oregon public health officials said Aug. 10 that ten people have been confirmed with an E. coli O157:H7 infection caused by a single strain, while six other cases appear to be linked. Of confirmed cases,four victims have been hospitalized, and one elderly woman in Washington County died from kidney failure associated with E. coli O157:H7 infection.

First of all, what caused the outbreak? From what I have gleaned, the working theory is that deer feces were the source of the E. coli on berries at the Jaquith Strawberry Farm located in Newberg, Ore.

Another question: How could have the outbreak been prevented? That is pure conjecture at this point. Some are saying it was simply "bad luck." But could the berries have been scrutinized more closely before harvest?

Of course, everyone is wondering: If the produce regulations were already issued related to the Food Safety Modernization Act, would the Jaquith Strawberry Farm be exempted under the Tester amendment? Perhaps not. From a news release from the Oregon Department of Public Health:

"Jaquith sold its strawberries to buyers who then resold them at roadside stands, farm stands and farmers' markets."

Under the Tester amendment, here is how the exemption is carved out:

Farms would qualify for an exemption from the produce safety standards in section 105 of S. 510 if, during the previous 3 year period, the average monetary value of the food they sold was less than $500,000, but only so long as the majority of sales were to consumers, restaurants, or grocery stores (as opposed to 3rd party food brokers) and were in the same state where the farm harvested or produced the food or within 275 miles of the farm.

So if the farm sold most of its strawberries to buyers who resold the fruit at roadside stands, then the "Tester" exemption for this farm would not appear to hold.  Check out the number of roadside stands that were selling the berries.

According to my accounting, there were 31 different roadside stands/retail outlets selling the farm's berries, operated by about 20 different entities.

Another element to this story is collateral damage. From the Oregon Department of Health news release:

None of the following have been implicated in this outbreak:

Berries other than strawberries;
Strawberries sold since Aug. 1;
Strawberries sold south of Marion County or east of Multnomah County;
Strawberries sold in supermarkets;
Strawberries picked at Jaquith Strawbery Farm's U-pick field;
Strawberries grown in southwest Washington state.

Such attempts to limit damage are commendable, but I wonder how closely consumers pay attention to these messages. When a case of E. coli on strawberries results in death and illness, I would think the entire strawberry industry feel the pain at some level.

Finally, because the farm is specifically identified, I am curious how food safety lawyers will approach the cases. Will they go after the small grower implicated in the multiple cases of illness and death? Is justice truly blind, or will the small farmer get a pass for "PR" reasons?

From Food Safety News:

Following reports that fresh strawberries sold at Oregon roadside stands and farmers markets were the likely source of at least 10 E. coli O157:H7 infections, one fatal, the Seattle-based food safety law firm Marler Clark donated $5,000 to the Food Alliance of Portland.

The Food Alliance, according to its website, "provides comprehensive third-party certification for social and environmental responsibility in agriculture and the food industry."

In a news release, Marler Clark managing partner Bill Marler, publisher of Food Safety News, said the firm is asking that the donation be used to promote small agriculture food safety.  Earlier this year, after a number of sprouts-related outbreaks and recalls, Marler Clark donated $10,000 to the International Sprout Growers Association to help reduce the potential risks involved in sprout production.

My last observation about the case is to give credit to Oregon public health officials, who appear very competent and capable in the E. coli investigation so far.