The spinach-packaging company in the cross hairs of an investigation into a nationwide E. coli outbreak has struggled to manage its wastewater and is in violation of a state water disposal permit, according to public records and state officials.
There is no indication these problems at Natural Selection Foods contributed to the current outbreak; by Wednesday investigators had not pinpointed a single source. But federal officials said wastewater management and processing habits at Natural Selection and other companies have not been ruled out.
"Yes, the investigation of the plants is ongoing, and investigators have been in there looking at all the practices in the plants in terms of areas where spinach could have been contaminated in the process," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer with the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
On Wednesday, the list of victims in the outbreak grew to 146 in 23 states. Meanwhile, government investigators stepped closer to the source of the outbreak, narrowing the list of suspect operations to three Northern California counties — San Benito, Santa Clara and Monterey.
Investigators also found the E. coli strain responsible for the human illness in a single bag of spinach purchased in New Mexico and sold under the brand name Dole. The bag was traced back to Natural Selection Foods.
As of Wednesday federal officials said more than half the E. coli victims have required hospitalization, and 23 were diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure. One woman has died.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he plans to promote California spinach in a commercial to help the industry rebound from the E. coli bacteria scare.
"We have to help the industry because every so often something like this happens, and we all have to really work together to help them again to get back because they are losing millions of dollars every day," Schwarzenegger said.
State agencies are meeting to discuss what "best practices" they can employ to protect against future outbreaks, said Susan Kennedy, Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff.
Natural Selection, North America’s largest processor of packaged salad greens, operated for years without a permanent disposal method for human sewage produced by employees, according to San Benito County records.
The company has two wastewater systems: one for sewage produced by its employees, another for "washwater" from vegetable packaging operations. The company has struggled with both in recent years.
In 1998, according to San Benito County records, Natural Selection suffered a failure of its onsite septic system, which handled the sewage generated by its approximately 400 employees. Until at least 2003, the records state, the company trucked this waste to an offsite facility.
The company won county approval to expand its vegetable processing facilities in 1999 — on the condition that it build a new onsite sewage disposal system. The system was not built. Yet the county allowed the new buildings to be occupied in April 2000 after being told the septic system would be built that summer.
The company received a $150,000 bid for the system, but it still didn’t get built, county records show. Instead, the company asked the city of San Juan Bautista for permission to connect to its sewer system.
Establishing that sewer connection took several years. But San Juan Bautista City Manager Jan McClintock said Natural Selection now is allowed to discharge wastewater at 90,000 gallons per day into the city’s system. She said that volume includes some of the washwater from vegetable processing.
Cecile DeMartini, a water resources engineer at the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Natural Selection is allowed to dispose 70,000 gallons per day of vegetable washwater by irrigating nearby fields. By law, those fields can grow only crops for animal feed.
But DeMartini said that during an inspection in February, she learned the company was exceeding the permitted disposal limit. As of July, she said, the company disposed an average of 274,000 gallons per day on nearby fields.
"They could not tell me at what point in time they exceeded 70,000 gallons per day," she said.
San Benito County records show this limit was "frequently exceeded" as early as July 2001.
DeMartini said her agency is revisiting the permit conditions, which may result in permission for a larger discharge volume. The company may be fined for exceeding the current permit, but DeMartini could not estimate the size of those fines.
On Tuesday, Natural Selection spokeswoman Samantha Cabaluna said she was not familiar with the company’s wastewater operations and declined to comment. She said she would try to learn about the issue, but attempts to reach her Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Drew and Myra Goodman, company founders and executives, did not respond to a message left at their home.
Natural Selection Foods started in 1984 on a small plot in the Carmel Valley called Earthbound Farm. In 1986, Earthbound sold its first pre-washed, bagged organic greens, becoming the first to succeed in a specialty market it now dominates.
By the mid-1990s, Earthbound was farming 800 acres and its salads were sold in Costco and Safeway. To fuel further expansion, the company struck deals with conventional growers, processing their crops while their fields went through the three-year organic certification process, said Samuel Fromartz of Washington, D.C., author of "Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew."
But as organic agriculture took on the scale of conventional farming, Fromartz said, it became apparent the two forms face the same hazards.
"It’s not like their irrigation water comes from different sources," Fromartz said.
Natural Selection uses onsite wells for its water. Records show this water usage averages about 70,000 gallons per day, but it can peak at more than 2 million gallons per day during the April-to-November harvest season.
Sometimes a disinfectant, like chlorine, is added to water on the production line to further sanitize produce. But in April the salad greens industry warned producers not to depend on this to remove all pathogens.
After the production line, solids are removed from the wastewater stream and the water is stored in an unlined pond onsite. From there, the water is pumped onto 97 acres of nearby fields as irrigation water, where it percolates back into groundwater.
The company tests groundwater monthly via monitoring wells. A sampling of those results in San Benito County files from 2001 showed no fecal coliform contamination in those wells.
Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the California Department of Health Services, said state officials inspect food processing plants like Natural Selection at least annually. But there are no routine inspections of farms.
Consumer advocates and academics say the nation’s food inspection system has become an unreliable patchwork, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which forced new duties on many agencies.
"We’re busy fending off perceived terrorists, but with the same resources we were supposed to be using to fend off disease as it already existed," said Dean Cliver, a food safety expert at UC Davis.