Food Safety Is Paramount In California Agriculture

Researchers Hone in on Bacteria Genome to Isolate Pathogens

By Laurie Greene, Founding Editor

Food safety is paramount in the specialty crop farm industry; but when a bacterium causes a food safety problem, there is important work to determine the exact fingerprint of that bacteria.

Matthew Stasiewicz, assistant professor of applied food microbiology in the area of food safety at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition, said it’s important to determine the genome of these bacteria that are causing problems.

“The biggest thing that has happened in the field of food safety is that the U.S. government has committed to using whole genome sequencing as a primary public health surveillance tool. So, if you have a foodborne disease and go to a doctor, and they isolate that organism, it will go into a nationwide database—now international database—that can link that organism’s genome sequence to whatever else shows up in the database. So, at the same time, if pathogens are isolated from foods potentially as part of an outbreak, those sequences can be [entered into the database] and [experts can] gather information from food sources as well as clinical patients. And that’s just a major tool.”

Stasiewicz said the genome is important because we need to know the true source of that bacteria. “The pathogens that can make you sick can be distributed in the environment.

So just because you potentially got sick from eating food and maybe you got an E.coli O157:H7 infection in your hometown, even if someone else two towns away got the same infection with E.coli O157:H7, we don’t know if that’s related, even if you potentially ate the same food,” Stasiewicz said. “That could come from the soil in your town, your local grower, a local grower somewhere else, or from a common source, common grower, or common packer, and gotten you both sick. This genome sequence information allows us to make those links much more clearly.”

Stasiewicz said this is an important pioneering effort to reduce food safety illnesses. “Importantly, from the food standpoint,” Stasiewicz said, “we want that information so we can find that and eliminate it. No food processor wants to make anyone sick. No grower wants to make anyone sick. So, we need to identify those concerns.”

California to Ease Water Restrictions

Excerpted from Sharon Bernstein; Reuters

Drought-plagued California will ease some protection for fish in the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, officials said Tuesday, a move expected to make more water available for farming and ease political tensions in an election year.

“California’s agriculture is critical to the world’s food supply,” said assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, who represents part of the San Joaquin Valley, who had lobbied hard against the restrictions. “An inability to produce that food would clearly be devastating to health and human safety not only in California but around the globe.”

Citing recent rains, regulators said Tuesday, there was enough water in the state’s reservoirs now to partially ease restrictions.

“We were quite concerned at that time about the issue of public health and safety,” Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “This really had the markings of a historic drought.”

Recent storms dropped nearly a foot of rain in some areas, boosting reservoir levels and the snowpack that the state relies on for drinking water in the spring, but still leaving supplies way below normal for this time of year.

Earlier this month, concern that the state was about to restrict water supplies to farmers even further swept through the agricultural community, spurring intensive pushback and a series of tense meetings with water regulators in the administration of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

“We are very concerned that if the current proposal as reported to us is enacted, it will have significant near- and long-term effects on the California economy and, more importantly, will not achieve the desired water supply security intended,” U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Congressmen Jim Costa and John Garamendi, all Democrats, wrote in a letter to the water board.

Under the new rules announced Tuesday, which Howard said may be modified again next month, the two massive public water projects responsible for pumping in the Delta will be able to deliver it to farmers and others, once the state determines that there is enough flowing to meet the health and sanitation needs of residents.

Scott Shapiro, an attorney specializing in water issues for the Sacramento firm Downey Brand, said expanding the allowable uses of tight water supplies was not just important for farmers.

“It’s not just for agriculture, because there are other needs that may be contracted for that go beyond health and safety,” Shapiro said. “It could include other municipal, industrial and agricultural needs.

In addition to allowing more of the water pumped from the Delta to be used for purposes other than meeting health and safety needs, the state planned to reduce by about a third the amount of water that the projects were required to leave in the Delta as a way of protecting fish, Howard said during the press briefing.

Mark Cowin, Director of California Department of Water Resources, commented that fish and wildlife experts consulted by his department said that endangered species in the Delta would not be harmed by the looser rules.