Who would have thought that when Minnesota went fishing for whomever was responsible for an E. coli outbreak in the Midwest, they’d reel in the hazelnut baron of Oregon’s Willamette Valley?

Reeling in big fish is not that unusual for Minnesota’s food detectives, but the Oregon political family they’ve put in the spotlight is not accustomed to the sort of attention it is getting from being a part of a small, but nasty, outbreak off in the Midwest.

The state’s newspapers, from the Oregonian in Portland to the hometown Yamhill News-Register, are giving major attention to the E. coli outbreak that’s been traced back to Newberg’s George Packing Co. because of the notoriety of its ownership.

The Willamette Valley has no more prominent political family with more importance to local hazelnut growers than the George’s. Founders Gary and Kathy George both held important political offices, Gary as a state senator and Kathy as a Yamhill County Commissioner.

The next generation is now in charge of the George Packing Co., brothers George and Shaun.   George is a currently a state senator.

State Sen. George turned his attention away from the ongoing session of the Oregon Legislature to try and speak for the hazelnut processing company. At best he was “out of the loop.”

As late as March 1O, he was denying test of hazelnuts processed at the family’s packing company had all come back with negative results. But the following morning, the Oregonian ran a front-page story saying those tests were positive.

George is also being depicted as a man more concerned about his relationship with the 120 Willamette Valley growers than food safety.  He initially declined to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a list of his customer-growers.  

Now George says he just wanted FDA to make the request in writing. He also wanted the names kept private, which FDA refused to do. Then FDA reportedly withdrew its request.

The fact that a relatively small outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in the Midwest was tracked back to the Oregon hazelnut industry’s most prominent family really has more to do with where the victims live.

Seven mostly middle-aged men in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan were infected with O157, and three required admission to hospitals.  Led by Minnesota’s famous “epi sleuths,” the three states went tracking with impressive speed.

They found the victims had a taste for unshelled hazelnuts purchased from bulk grocery store bins. That led to the March 3 recall by DeFranco and Sons in Los Angeles and George Packing Co., which supplied DeFranco.

On the March 7, lab tests confirmed O157 in the nuts. It was the final confirmation for all the other evidence collected that led to Oregon hazelnuts.

Sen. George now says the Oregon hazelnut industry has improvements to make and needs to get better. An anti-bacterial agent was added to the first processing plant wash after the last big peanut outbreak. He wants to add a “kill step” like the fumigation process used for almonds.

About 650 Oregon growers produce 35,000 tons of hazelnuts annually on 30,400 acres, according to the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board.