The World in a Strawberry: Lessons Learned from Food Safety Outbreak in Oregon

      Posted On: October 19, 2011

On Sunday, August 7, the first day of National Farmers Market Week, Oregon Farmers’ Markets Association (OFMA) President Rebecca Landis received a flurry of emails and phone calls with dreadful news. Pathogenic E. coli had been found in strawberries for what is thought to be the first time. The source farm was found quickly. But one elderly woman had already died, and more than a dozen other people were seriously ill. Some tainted berries had leaked into a handful of farmers markets, in addition to many more farm stands and roadside stands, even though the grower was not a farmers market vendor. Here, FMC interviews Rebecca Landis on how this issue unfolded and what she thinks can be learned.
How did OFMA get involved in the E.coli incident?
It was oddly fortunate that we had just spent the last two years working with legislators and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to write a new law setting the ground rules for farmers markets and other farm direct marketing. Not only was I included in the stakeholder group on the outbreak, but ODA officials trusted me enough to refer some media inquiries to me.  Had our organization not been so involved in that law, I’m not sure I would have been contacted so early in the process.
What was your immediate reaction? How did these berries get into farmers markets if the farm was not a market vendor anywhere?
Were the berries allowed via policy or management decision, or were they snuck in without market knowledge or consent? Subsequent research indicates it may have been a mixture – some came into markets within guidelines and some were even properly labeled, while others possibly entered without knowledge or consent. When all tracing work was complete, ODA found the berries had gone to six Oregon markets and two across the border in Washington. This represents a small fraction of our membership, but it’s still worrisome to me.

I never thought that farmers markets and small farms were immune from foodborne illness, but I have stressed traceability as a strength of direct marketing. Now, here I am having to explain how this reselling occurred in farmers markets.

What actions did OFMA take first?
That Sunday I gave ODA some contact data for farmers markets they thought might have had the berries, and I began contacting market managers myself. The next day there was a phone conference of stakeholders. I pulled off the freeway to participate in the call on my way to Troutdale, where the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition was meeting a couple hours from my home.  I was signed up to attend one day of the conference, where I had hoped to meet FMC Director Stacy Miller and other members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition – just not under these circumstances! Stacy lined up members of the NSAC Food Safety Task Force – seasoned by working on the Tester-Hagen amendments in late 2010 – to help me craft an OFMA press release. I didn’t attend a single session of the conference, but I got a “dream team” as a sounding board.

The only thing missing was a good statewide media list.  As a former print journalist, I understand the importance of having a media list. Another OFMA board member, Sarah Hackney, and I sent the release to the state’s largest newspaper (and a regional weekly agriculture newspaper), but it did not reach the right reporter at the daily paper. OFMA’s viewpoint didn’t get covered in the first news cycle. But the press release went on our web site and our email lists. Our stakeholders in markets and related groups got the message right away, even if the general public did not.

In the next few days, both FMC and NSAC wrote press releases from a national perspective. Opponents of Tester-Hagan — which includes a reasonable set of accommodations for smaller farms that are mostly farm-direct — appeared to use the incident to achieve repeal or weakening via administrative rules, even though the farm where the outbreak occurred would not have qualified under Tester-Hagan.

Here was tangible proof of the value of NSAC’s food safety task force: We were prepared to address this backlash (see The Packer’s August article).  My response to The Packer’s inquiry, of course, never saw the light of day on that web site. But I am happy to have returned the favor by helping my new colleagues with their responses. These issues aren’t going anywhere, as I was recently reminded by the more recent and much more widespread listeria outbreak in wholesale cantaloupe, on which the Perishable Pundit Jim Prevor commented  earlier this month, saying that “the priority can be safe or the priority can be local, but it cannot be both.”

What has been the reaction of consumers? Has it caused customers to view markets or strawberries with trepidation?
Berries have continued to sell well in most of the state. My sense is that there was more likely to be an effect where it was known that those berries were sold.

What steps for the future are you anticipating?
I don’t have numbers, but my sense is that a growing number of Oregon farmers markets allow little or no resale. I think OFMA’s best contribution is to have a serious policy discussion of the options for greater control at markets where resale is still allowed. The decision about what percentage of resale to allow, if any, is really just for starters. What matters most are the conditions for selling that 10 or 25 percent of resale. Markets should have knowledge of and prior approval of the exact grower source of that resale. Many markets do this through Second Farm applications, requiring a letter from the actual grower, or both. Effective labeling on vendor tables is crucial – otherwise, how can we claim to be the most transparent and traceable place to buy? Another option for farmers markets is allowing limited consignment, where ownership and all responsibility stays with the grower, instead of resale.

As you passed the initial wave of media, a licensing issue emerged in the media. What was that about?
Various media reported that many of the strawberry resellers were unlicensed but should have been. They were confusing food safety law with a little-known chapter of commodity statutes (written, I think, in the 1930s to protect farmers from unscrupulous wholesalers). The chapter contains a retail produce peddler license that applies to those peddling produce from vehicles. It is NOT a food safety license. It costs only $15 and features a one-page form that addresses neither the source nor the destination of the produce. ODA and I agree that if every one of the resellers had licensed as peddlers, it would not have enhanced the investigation at all.

Now ODA has to figure out what to do about this license that has essentially become dormant with disuse. A $15 fee is not going to fund enforcement of anything. I had intended to educate markets about it in the context of the new farm-direct law – making sure farmers markets know that resale was not protected by the new law and that resellers were required to get a peddler license.

The state’s options now are to do an education campaign to increase compliance, or seek to repeal it or modify it to make it more meaningful. I am committed to helping ODA with this process. But it’s reasonable to ask what aspects of the problem should be a government responsibility and what should be an internal policy discussion for OFMA and other agricultural organizations.  I have been pondering a labeling law, but the reality is that most of the resale of these berries took place in sales venues other than farmers markets. Other agricultural groups would have to see required labeling as a value before it could become law.