Role of Science in Food Safety Essay Paper

Food Safety Hazards of Livestock

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks ongoing Eschericia coli outbreaks across the nation, including those arising from leafy green vegetables. For example, in 2012, 58 people were sickened by an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the Midwest that was eventually tracked to a Missouri farm producing romaine lettuce (CDC). In 2006, close to 200 people became ill when exposed to O157:H7-contaminated baby spinach harvested from the Central Valley of California (Warnert). The 2006 outbreak resulted in the death of two elderly women and a 2-year-old boy. Making matters worse, nearly 80% of the nation’s leafy greens are grown in the Central Valley. Needless to say, the impact on public trust concerning the safety of farm produce was considerable.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also tracked the behavior of consumers following the 2006 outbreak (Arnade, Calvin, and Kuchler 734). What was unique about this outbreak was the FDA was warning the public as the outbreak was occurring, for nearly two weeks, whereas in the past the FDA was typically was behind the curve and notifying the public after the outbreaks had already ceased. Consumers in 26 states and a Canadian province became ill, requiring 104 hospitalizations. As a result of the media coverage nearly 87% of consumers were aware of the outbreak as it was occurring. By week 3 following the FDA announcement, bagged spinach sales had bottomed out at 63% of normal sales and was still 10% below predicted sales levels by week 68 (744). Bulk spinach bottomed out one week after the FDA announcement at 32% below expected sales volumes, but had recovered by week 26. During this shock to the spinach market, consumers ate more lettuce to compensate.

A more long-term consequence of the 2006 E. coli spinach contamination was increased research into the sources of contamination and changes in farming procedures. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and California university researchers investigated the source of 2006 outbreaks using the latest biotechnology tools (Warnert). Once the contaminated spinach field had been located, researchers first identified O157:H7 in cattle feces about a mile from the field (Jay et al. 1908). During this investigation, feral swine were observed in the area and an effort was begun to trap and test local wildlife, in addition to all forms of local livestock, pets, sources of water, and soil. The O157:H7 strain was detected in cattle and feral swine feces, in addition to water and soil samples (Jay et al. 1909). Although the contaminated spinach field was fenced to prevent cattle from entering the researchers found evidence for wildlife intrusion, including the presence of feral swine tracks.

The ultimate source of the O157:H7 strain was believed to cattle, which transmitted the bacteria to the feral swine through contaminated ground water (Benjamin et al. 81-82). In order to quantify the risk cattle pose to fields of leafy green vegetables researchers surveyed coastal ranches in California for O157 contamination of livestock, water sources, and soil. O157 was detected in 2.6% of cattle fecal matter, 1.5% of water sources, and 1.1% of soil samples on 8 cattle ranches, although there was high variability in contamination levels between ranches (84-85). For example, 44 of 49 cattle tested on a single ranch on one date tested positive for O157-contaminate fecal matter, but the water sources were clean. Because this was a longitudinal study, researchers were able to determine warmer weather, increased humidity, and larger herds increased the chances of O157 contamination. With the use of sequencing technology, researchers were also able to show that the different strains of O157 were rarely transmitted from ranch to ranch.

One interesting result from the study by Benjamin and colleagues is that higher wind speeds were associated with less contamination of soil samples, suggesting windy days helped to cleanse ranch soil of O157 contamination. A more recent study examined the effect of airborne contamination at sites where cattle feedlots were located adjacent to fields of leafy green vegetables in Nebraska (Berry et al.). The water used for crop irrigation was negative for O157 during the entire study period (1104). Although one soil sample tested positive, the strain of E. coli in the soil was distinct from the strains found in the feedlots and on the leafy green vegetable crops, which suggests the soil was not a source for crop contamination. The distances from the feedlots tested for contamination was 60, 120, and 180 meters and as expected the further the distance from the feedlots the less likely the crops were contaminated with the same strains of E. coli contaminating the cattle. Interestingly, E. coli contamination was detected in the air above the feedlots regardless of wet or dry conditions, but never downwind, until the researchers used much more sensitive methods of detection (1108). Overall, airborne E. coli was believed to be the primary source of crop contamination.

Berry and colleagues concluded that the greatest threat of E. coli contamination to leafy green vegetable crops was from nearby cattle operations (1108). Dry conditions, cattle movement, and wind were suggested to increase the risk of nearby crop contamination. The data also revealed considerable crop and air contamination within 180 meters of feedlots in Nebraska, which is a significant concern given that current guidelines suggest a buffer of only 120 meters is sufficient to protect crops from feedlots. In other words, further research will be needed to determine the minimum safe distance to prevent airborne E. coli contamination of leafy green vegetable crops by feedlot activity and proximity.


The shock experienced by consumers during the 2006 E. coli-infected spinach outbreak resulted in a long-term depression of spinach sales, which had a negative effect on both farmers and food processors. This in turn would have pressured farmers and government regulators to do more to protect consumers. The result is increased research, using the latest biotechnology tools, to investigate the sources and manner of crop contamination, thereby providing an empirical foundation upon which to base recommendations and develop innovative solutions. In the future, science will likely play a much larger role in food safety, from the farm to vendor.

As the amount of land available for crop and cattle production shrinks and the demand for leafy green vegetables increases, there will be increased pressure to optimize land utilization; however, the study by Berry and colleagues revealed buffer zones may be essential for preventing airborne E. coli from contaminating nearby crop fields. Based on these findings, current buffer guidelines are inadequate for protecting leafy green crops from adjacent feedlots in Nebraska. Again, scientific research and resulting innovation will likely be needed to decrease the risk of crop contamination, for example, wind breaks or screens, in addition to changes to the current buffer guidelines.

Works Cited

Arnade, Carlos, Calvin, Linda, and Fred Kuchler. “Consumer Response to a Food Safety Shock: The 2006 Food-Borne Illness Outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 Linked to Spinach. Review of Agricultural Economics, 31.4 (2009), 734-50. Print.

Benjamin, Lisa A. et al. “Risk Factors for Escherichia coli O157 on Beef Cattle Ranches Located near a Major Produce Production Region. Epidemiology and Infection, 143.1 (2015), 81-93. Print.

Berry, Elaine D. et al. “Effect of Proximity to a Cattle Feedlot on Escherichia coli O157:H7 Contamination of Leafy Greens and Evaluation of the Potential for Airborne Transmission.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 81.3 (2015), 1101-10. Print.

CDC. Investigation Update: Multistate Outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 Infections Linked to Romaine Lettuce. March 23, 2012 (Final Update). U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mar. 2012. Web. 23 February 2015.

Jay, Michele T. et al. “Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Feral Swine near Spinach Fields and Cattle, Central California Coast.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, 13.12 (2007), 1908-11. Print.

Warnert, Jeannette E. Research Helps Ensure Safety of Leafy Greens. University of California Cooperative Extension, Imperial County, Oct. 2010. Web. 23 February 2015.

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