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KAI RYSSDAL: It’s easy these days to fill up on junk food. So you’re trying to eat healthy. You run to the supermarket and grab some lettuce or maybe some spinach. Not the kind you actually have to clean yourself but the prewashed stuff in those plastic bags. There’s a good chance that what you bought came from California’s Salinas Valley, south of San Francisco.
In the year since the E. coli outbreak that was traced to Salinas Valley spinach last fall, California’s salad industry has lost tens of millions of dollars. Farmers and processors have come up with new ways to protect the food supply. But John Ryan reports some say those protections have gone too far.
JOHN RYAN: Inside the largest factory of America’s largest salad company, they don’t make salad the way you’d make it at home. At the Fresh Express plant in Salinas, 5-foot-wide conveyor belts run spinach leaves through tanks of chlorinated water. Laser beams detect anything without chlorophyll, and micro-air jets puff the sticks or stones away without disturbing the green leaves all around them.
The high-tech, low-temperature facility handles a million pounds of lettuce every day.
Vice President for Manufacturing Bill Clyburn gets a group of visitors ready to go in.
BILL CLYBURN: First thing we have to do is there’s no jewelry in the plant. So all your watches have to come off. Any earrings, necklaces . . .
It’s not an earring in your spinach that the salad industry is most worried about. It’s E. coli. No one knows exactly how E. coli got onto the tainted spinach in last September’s outbreak, but consumers demanded action.
California growers quickly came up with voluntary standards for handling and growing leafy greens. Like hygiene training for workers, and measures to keep animals and their droppings away from farm fields.
Consumer groups say the guidelines are too weak. And processors like Fresh Express agree. They have far more restrictive standards of their own. The statewide guidelines call for a 30-foot buffer between leafy greens and grazing cattle. Fresh Express requires 800-foot buffers. Many farmers say they’ve been pressured to bulldoze or fence off wildlife habitat.
Sprinklers water the radishes and peppers on Andy Griffin’s organic farm in Hollister, California. Griffin scoffs at the notion you can keep crops safe from pathogens by building fences.
ANDY GRIFFIN: It’s ridiculous. You can’t fence out the birds, you can’t fence out the sky. I mean, I don’t know what they’re thinking.
Fresh Express wouldn’t tell us all the restrictions it puts on suppliers. But Christina Fisher with the Nature Conservancy says Fresh Express has even told farmers it doesn’t want to see any frogs in their fields.
She says Fresh Express has so much market share, farmers have little choice but to do whatever it says.
Christina Fisher: I think the farmers are under tremendous pressure. They’re being asked to eliminate water-quality protections and wildlife habitat that they value as a part of their farming practices in order to maintain their markets for these buyers.
Farmer Andy Griffin says the standards adopted in the name of food safety miss the point.
GRIFFIN: All of the food goes through a narrow aperture. Y’know, all the salads go through just a few salad mix plants. So if there’s a contamination of, say, the blade on the cutting machine, you have the opportunity to contaminate salad that’s going to feed a whole nation.
Griffin doesn’t trust agribusiness to keep food safe. But Bill Clyburn of Fresh Express says his company has never been linked to any food-borne illness. Clyburn says he avoids buying anything but prewashed salad.
He says he doesn’t want to eat a head of lettuce that other shoppers have held up to their noses in the produce aisle.
In Salinas, California, I’m John Ryan for Marketplace.
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