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The E. coli in this burger may not come from it being under cooked, but from the lettuce or onion that was possibly irrigated with effluent water from a municipal wastewater treatment plant that did not adequately filter out all bacteria prior to being used to irrigate farmland.

An ag industry newspaper called The Packer is reporting the discovery of E. coli in Romaine Lettuce coming out of the Salinas Valley in California. While this bit of news is not attached to reports of human illness preceding such a recall, this news serves as another black eye for California’s vegetable industry.

According to the article, the Andrew Smith Co. of Salinas recalled 1,000 cartons of lettuce on May 7 “after tests showed the presence of E. coli in a bag of romaine lettuce, the day after another company recalled romaine products — but the two recalls are apparently unrelated.”

While the article does not address it, it’s been reported that farms in the Salinas Valley have for several years now used treated sewage water from municipal wastewater treatment plants as a means of irrigating their crops. The move, according to one website, came in response about a decade ago to the intrusion of salt water in wells that irrigated the high-value vegetable crops grown in the Monterey and Salinas area of Central California.

Just a couple years ago more cases of E. coli were reportedly linked to spinach and other crops coming out of the same growing region of California.

This political and PR nightmare is not what Central Coast growers — or any farmers for that matter — need. But it’s one that farmers have invited upon themselves by agreeing with cities to take toxic water from wastewater treatment plants and use it to irrigate the crops we eat.

It was for this very reason that about a decade ago farmers in neighboring counties of Central California got together and banned the land application of sewage sludge and the use of treated effluent water on farmlands in agriculturally rich counties such as Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin. At the same time, farmers in Kern County California were being exposed in newspaper articles there about their practice of having sludge trucked in from nearby Orange and Los Angeles counties for use as “soil amendments.” That news surprised some vegetable farmers in Kern County, who immediately denied using sludge — the industry term is “biosolids” — on their farmland and tried to get an ordinance similar to other counties in order to ban the import and use of sewage sludge on farmlands there. Their fears not only stemmed from the possible contamination of their crops, but from the associated public relations nightmare they feared would befall them once word got out that municipalities were using carrot crops and other farmland to dispose of their municipally treated sewage.

Fast-forward a decade and we see the seeds of these fears bearing fruit in the form of tainted lettuce, spinach and other crops coming out of the nation’s salad bowl. In the expedience of getting rid of treated sewage solids and liquids, farmers have become an easy target for the cities as they push biosolids as a safe and cheaper alternative to other kinds of soil amendments.

The counties that argued against the land application of sewage sludge did so on the grounds that there are truly no guarantees that the treatment processes used eliminates all of the toxins and heavy metals that are part of the municipal waste stream. In short, it’s not just the human waste that gets flushed down all those toilets, but everything else from the petroleum products to the dangerous chemicals illegally dumped by businesses and clandestine drug labs that makes it into the waste stream at the municipal waste treatment facilities that is also a big part of what gets dumped on farmland through these agreements between the cities and farmers.

When are farmers going to learn that they can’t play roulette with cities and expect to not lose when the public learns of these practices and stops buying their produce? The cities surely have no stake in farms losing their ability to sell their crops; it’s the farmers who have everything to lose when consumers decide to stop buying their produce. What happens when packing industry efforts to move more fruits and vegetables through the USDA school lunch program are successful and we wind up with thousands of sick or dead school children because of a few bags of tainted lettuce or other commodities — all because cities coerced farmers to use treated sewage products on their farmland?

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