“E. Coli Pervades Harvest Area
Salinas Valley waterways are known to carry the bacteria that poisoned at least 145 people and killed one who ate tainted spinach.
By Marla Cone, Times Staff Writer
September 21, 2006
The bacterium that has sickened people across the nation and forced growers to destroy spinach crops is so pervasive in the Salinas Valley that virtually every waterway there violates national standards.
“There are many sources of water coming into the watershed, and I guarantee you that they all have generic E. coli,” and many carry the deadly E. coli strain linked to food poisonings, said Christopher Rose, an environmental scientist at the state’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which tests the region’s waterways.”
“E. coli is a national problem, but it is especially severe in livestock areas. A single cow can shed as much as 100 billion fecal bacteria per day. The food-poisoning outbreak could pit vegetable growers against livestock owners, both economic powerhouses in the state.
Monterey County’s spinach fields are downstream of the Gabilan Mountains, where beef cattle, dairy cows and horses graze. En route to the Salinas River, many tributaries flow through the livestock areas, picking up bacteria. The water then flows through the low-lying valley where vegetables are grown.
Cattle and other livestock graze near the banks of the creeks, and their manure can easily contaminate the water with millions of E. coli organisms. “In some areas, grazing has resulted in manure lining the banks of channels of tributaries to the Salinas River,” a June report by the Central Coast water board stated.
How much of the region’s water contamination comes from cattle is unknown. “What is certain is that livestock are a source of E. coli, including E. coli O157:H7,” in several creeks that flow into the Salinas River, the board’s report concluded. It also found that “the most frequent occurrence of E. coli O157:H7 occurs at sites flanking areas used for grazing purposes.””