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Did Deer Cause Oregon’s Strawberry Outbreak?

Strawberries sold at roadside and farmer’s markets last month in Oregon have been implicated in an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infection that has caused one death and sickened as many as 15 others, the Oregon Department of Public Health announced Monday.

The outbreak sent four people to the hospital and two suffered hemolytic uremic syndrome. One, an elderly woman from Washington County, died from kidney failure caused by the disease. 

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So far, health investigators think deer may be to blame for the E. coli contamination. Deer tracks and deer feces were observed in several strawberry fields at the suspect farm, according to health investigators. 

Tracing the berries to that farm was no easy task. Between July 10 and 29, at least 10 and as many as 16 people fell ill in Oregon with E. coli O157:H7 infections. It was not until last week – when genetic fingerprinting revealed that 10 people had been infected with identical strains of E. coli bacteria – that epidemiologists knew they had an outbreak on their hands. 

Interviewing case patients with what Oregon health investigators call their “shotgun questionnaire,” an exhaustive checklist that includes everything from spices to sunflower seeds to petting zoos, produced interesting and unusual results.  

Nearly all the case patients recalled eating strawberries and said they had shopped at local farmer’s markets or fruit stands in the preceding weeks, according to state epidemiologist Katrina Hedberg. 

Further questioning revealed that all the local strawberry vendors had a single supplier in common: Jaquith Strawberry Farm in Newberg.   

But, as Hedberg explained to Food Safety News, pinpointing the farm was where things got more complicated, not easier. The farm sells its strawberries to a wide array of secondary vendors, who in turn sell them at local fruit stands. Once they’re there, there’s nothing to differentiate fruit from Farm A from that of Farm B. 

“The traceback here is very difficult,” she says. “A lot of these berries are sold at roadside stands, so they’re really not labeled.”

For that reason, health department officials could not give consumers lot numbers or packaging details to look for, but instead have advised people not to eat strawberries purchased from Northwest Oregon farm stands in July. The strawberries were not sold in supermarkets.

The strawberry harvest in Oregon strawberries is now over, and the local berries have a shelf life of only about 2 days, according to Hedberg, so fresh strawberries no longer present a hazard.   

However, residents of Northwest Oregon, specifically in Washington, Clatsop and Multnomah counties, are advised not to eat frozen strawberries or uncooked jams purchased from fresh fruits stands because those berries could still be carrying the bacteria.

The berries may also have been sold at “one or two farm stands in Clark County,” Hedberg says, although that possibility has not been confirmed. 

The contaminated berries were likely limited to Oregon. “We don’t expect these cases to be any more widely distributed to any other states,” says Hedberg, “just because of the fragile nature of [the strawberries].”

In the meantime, the search for a source of E. coli O157:H7 on the farm continues. Hedberg says the leading hypothesis is that the bacteria originated in deer feces in one of the fields. Investigators are taking samples of soil, feces and plants to test for the outbreak strain of E. coli.

“If we could pinpoint it to a particular field, that would be extremely useful,” she added. Hedberg said the Jaquiths, long-time strawberry growers, are being “very cooperative … they really want to get to the bottom of this, too.”

Hedberg says the outbreak has been a blow to Oregon residents, who enjoy eating regional strawberries in the summer.  

“It’s just unfortunate,” she says. “Everyone here in the [Public Health] office loves Oregon strawberries, so we feel really bad, but our job is to protect the health of local Oregonians.”

This is the first E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to strawberries, although the bacteria has been associated with many outbreaks involving fresh produce, as well as undercooked meat.  In 2006, an outbreak caused by another Shiga toxin-producing strain of E. coli, O26, was linked to strawberries or blueberries in Massachusetts, according to the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Database.

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    One dead, two with HUS…
    “…pinpointing the farm was where things got more complicated, not easier. The farm sells its strawberries to a wide array of secondary vendors, who in turn sell them at local fruit stands. Once they’re there, there’s nothing to differentiate fruit from Farm A from that of Farm B.”
    “The traceback here is very difficult,” she says. “A lot of these berries are sold at roadside stands, so they’re really not labeled.”
    So much for “know your farmer” and the farmers flea market mantra “we sell only what we grow”. All bluster and BS to trick the unwary shopper, apparently.
    http://www.marlerblog.com/case-news/know-your-farmer-know-your-food—except-when-it-is-not-the-food-they-grew/
    A fool and her money are soon parted.
    At the farmers market, at the CSA, at the organic co-op, at the yuppie deli…caveat emptor, baby, caveat emptor!

  • Farmer T

    I would like to hear what Doc Mudd’s solutions are to securing our food system rather than wagging his finger at everything that comes up. We don’t need another finger wagger, we need problem solvers, solutions, transparency and truth about what is causing all these issues and it is not just happening in the organic, small farm, CSA world. What do you suggest?
    Rather than quoting every article that comes out (we all read it the first time) save us the sarcasm and provide solutions. Better yet, get off the computer and get out into the ‘field’ and make a difference. As Eisenhower once said, ‚ÄúFarming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.‚Äù
    As for the Oregon strawberry case, what about testing the water? No mention of that.
    Now the world is afraid of deer droppings. We might as well live in a bubble if we are going to be afraid of any animal stepping foot into our fields or gardens. E. coli has always been around (and salmonella). We deal with it every day and there are many, many strains. Answer this Doc Mudd: Why do we have emerging strains of e.coli that are far more lethal? Where did they come from? Why are there so many outbreaks of the more dangerous strains, and moreover, why are these stories not being reported nationally or internationally in mainstream media? I say caveat emptor all around, not just “at the farmers market, at the CSA, at the organic co-op, at the yuppie deli…” (Sorry I couldn’t resist quoting. Now I see how easy it is.)

  • http://www.scoringag.com Brunhilde Merker

    Tracing the berries to that farm was no easy task. It would have been easy with ScoringAg’s item-level traceback code, right down to the spot in the field even when commingled. Here is a code SSI_D26457A3B5 to check it out on http://www.traceback.com or http://www.scoringag.com Search SSI-EID. Product labeling is the FDA requirement since July 3, 2011 for any type of food operation. The complete system for a farm at this size would be below $5,000. No comparison to the immense damage and costs now.

  • Doc Mudd

    “I would like to hear what Doc Mudd’s solutions are to securing our food system rather than wagging his finger…”
    Well, “T”, honesty and integrity in marketing might be a good place for dreamy “small producers” to begin resolving their food safety problems. If you claim you grew it, and you claim you “know” it’s safe then, by God, you should, in fact, take complete responsibility for those convenient sales pitches. Conning a gullible public is inexcusable, even for “small, local” profiteers. Even for profiteers once or twice removed from the point of retail sale.
    The next logical preventive approach would be for food producers of all shapes and sizes to put in place and document adherence to good, proven food safety measures in growing, processing and distributing. That’s what FSMA was originally aiming to do, but the piteous whining of self-described “small farmers” (and their professional anti-agriculture activist handlers) crying for exemption from scrutiny brought about the Tester amendment. FSMA was gutted, first by Tester, then by budget cuts. So, we will continue to have outbreaks…big ‘uns and small ‘uns…lot’s of ‘em.
    What other constructive criticism? Well, maybe just generally knock it off with the dubious health and safety claims for “small, local, all-natural, organic, hand-hoed, hippie-kissed, etc.” foods. These embarrassing but inevitable little outbreak episodes expose all of those wishful but spurious claims to the harsh ridicule they very justly deserve. Keep in mind when you hucksters make your bold noisy snakeoil promises that not all of the attention you get will necessarily be positive — we’re not all ignorant rubes out here.
    As for “emerging strains of e.coli”, hell, that’s nothing new — e. coli has been mutating and evolving for tens of thousands of years (nearly all of those under “organic” conditions, by the way). A biological phenomenon that’s intensely interesting to medical microbiologists, but not particularly newsworthy to ordinary folks who don’t have a worthwhile opinion, one way or the other. Sadly, uninformed know-it-all quack medicine peddling butt-in-skis publishing anti-technology propaganda promise to delay progress in managing microbial disease…if they don’t derail sensible scientific progress entirely, as they obviously intend.
    Finally, Eisenhower was absolutely correct about armchair agronomists and hobby farmers. Especially today they seem uniquely uninformed, out of touch and strangely ill-intended. I’m not one of those who has all the easy salesman’s answers to complex scientific questions (i.e. “just turn the clock back” to some blissful primitive time that never existed, that should fix everything, right?). I usually have as many questions as I have answers. Will probably create as many interesting problems as I do clever solutions again today — good or bad, I got some mud on my boots and started some wheels turnin’ again early this mornin’ (and it’s great we finally got some rain). How about you, “T”? I’m sensing you are all hat and no head, pardner. What’s your agenda?

  • http://www.scoringag.com Brunhilde Merker

    Farmer T,
    As a follow-up to my first answer, ScoringAg.com has the total solution. First the farmer needs to set up a block code for a portion of the field called PIDC whether 5 acres or 56 acres. The smaller the size of block, the lower the risk and the greater the chance to isolate the problem, simple math used here. Second the field data needs to be entered as needed so that when it is needed, the data has a reference point. Third, every flat of berries that is picked from a row or two has a main label and the clamshells in that flat get a daughter sticker that has the searchable traceback code from the flat label tied to the block and the picker with date and time, PLU no., Best By Date, and a serial code. The Main flat label has farm name, brand name, Julian Date, and time, GPS within six feet of the end of the row, Variety name, GTIN number for PTI stores, ScoringAg’s search number SSI-EID code that the consumer can look up on his home computer or Smart phone, Lot or Block code, Size of Flat and clamshell used, Strawberry Picker number, Country of Origin and Certification Company with Score PLU number.
    It doesn’t take weeks with ScoringAg, only seconds to find the source. The cost of this total process would account for about 11 cents for a flat or berries with 8 clamshells in that flat would make the total cost less then a penny per clamshell.

  • Doc Mudd

    Heh, looks like “Farmer T” evaporated into ‘Dreamer T’ or ‘Faker T’ or ‘Paid Propagandist T’.
    Just another preachy clueless know-it-all organic yuppie asshat itchin’ to scold and tell us all how to do our damned farmin’ — from a safe distance so as not to risk gettin’ any mud on ‘em, of course. All hat and no head.

  • John P

    The Spinach E.Coli problem of a few years was caused by feces of wild animals in the Salinas Valley. Rodent dropping in a factory or ‘scat’ in a field are not new. One of the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) or Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) always involve evaluation of the possibility of contamination by animals, birds, insects, or microbes and minimizing those risks. I’m glad to see the farmer is cooperating. I’m sure he will now embrace HACCP. the victims did his Hazard Analysis, he needs to figure out the Critical Control Points. Maybe a deer fence is all he needs. Hopefully the victims don’t sign on with some ambulance chaser and sue this farm out of existence. I’m sure he doesn’t carry product liability insurance like the big farms.