(Aug. 25, 11:00 a.m.) The California Department of Fish and Game has begun a study to see if there is any connection between wildlife and E. coli, enlisting the help of deer hunters to provide testing samples.

The study is a direct result of the 2006 E. coli outbreak traced back to a field of spinach in San Bonito County, which some believe may have been contaminated by wild pigs.

But there has not been definitive scientific evidence linking wildlife and the presence of E. coli in vegetables grown in the state. The three-year study will concentrate on collecting samples in three coastal counties, taking advantage of deer hunting season, Aug. 9–Sept. 21.

The department is providing hunters with collection kits to save a section of deer colons. Researchers will test the the samples for E. coli.

“This is just one part of the study,” said Andrew Gordus, department of fish and game senior environmental scientist, who is heading the study. “We’re planning on collecting black-tail deer and wild pig colon samples from hunters and depredation permits, and we’ll be netting birds and trapping small mammals, which will not be killed.”

He said the study is in collaboration with the University of California-Davis, funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, along with funding from a department of fish and game grant.

“Investigators did isolate the same strain of E. coli during the 2006 outbreak from wild pigs, but they never had the science to make the true connection from the pigs to that specific outbreak,” Gordus said.

Gordus said he handed out kits to about 150 hunters at Fort Hunter Liggett on opening day of hunting season. On Aug. 12, he had collected seven deer colon samples, but during the study, he hopes to collect as many as 2,400 samples.

“We need that many because the prevalence (of E. coli) is so low you need to increase the sample size,” he said. “If you have a prevalence of 40%, you know it’s there, but when it’s down to 3% to 5%, you need a large sample size to determine if it’s truly there or not.”

Deer fences

He said the study is being driven by two factors that are putting pressure on growers: the industry’s good agricultural practices and department of fish and game wildlife regulations.

He said if the study could remove the state’s deer from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s animal-species-of-risk list, growers would not have to erect 8-foot fences to keep them out of the fields.

“We’re trying to protect the deer, and we hope we can demonstrate through good science that they are not an issue,” Gordus said.

He said if the study shows there is no connection between wildlife and E. coli in crops, it will put less pressure on the department to issue permits to growers to kill deer and other animals.

“The law states you have to prove damage, but just assuming they carry E. coli isn’t damage,” he said. “Another issue is that if an auditor for a buyer sees deer tracks in the field they’ll tell the grower they’re not going to buy the crop.”

Hunters can drop the collection kits at a number of locations in Monterey, San Bonito and San Luis Obispo counties, including Rio Farms in King City.

“The environmental community has said deer are innocent until proven guilty,” said Bob Martin, general manager for Rio Farms. “Unfortunately, it’s just the opposite because the CDC is listing deer as animals of significant risk because they found the O157:H7 strain in deer in the Midwest. But they haven’t done a comprehensive study of deer in California.”

Martin said the only way to know if there is a connection is to conduct the study.

“If there are no positives, then they can say deer are innocent and we shouldn’t have to fence them out or do a wholesale slaughter because of a danger of contamination,” he said.

Martin said growers are under constant pressure to limit their liability.

“The LGMA (California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement) and the handlers are putting pressure on the growers to create a sterile environment in their fields,” he said. “And the big buyers are pressuring them to go beyond the metrics. The growers are so hungry for the business that they’re willing to use food safety techniques as marketing tools.”

He said some members of the agreement are to blame for the industry often having to go beyond the agreement’s own good agricultural practices metrics.

“They’re going above and beyond the LGMA metrics so they can get this business from the buyers,” he said. “It’s not fair to the environment and it’s not fair to the growers to have to be caught up in this.”

Pro food safety

He said growers are not against food safety measures — if they are backed by solid science.

“It’s these window dressing measures that cost a lot of money, but don’t accomplish anything that we’re fighting,” he said. “According to LGMA metrics, if you see deer tracks in a field you just don’t harvest there, but some of the handlers are using this as a tool to get rid of extra product that they committed to under contract. They can say that if a 20-acre block has deer tracks in it, they won’t take any of it. This is a legal way out of a contract.”

The sample kits were also being given out at Jackpot Harvesting Inc., Gonzales, Calif.

Kek Flores, food safety director for Jackpot Harvesting, said he is careful which hunters he gives the kits.

“We’re not just handing them out to everybody who has a gun,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re going to make the effort to take the sample.”

He said the program could pay off for growers and hunters.

“I love to hunt and I don’t want to see deer eradicated, but I also work for a farmer, and I don’t want to see fields rejected because of deer tracks,” Flores said. “It can be the difference in having a buffer in a field and losing a field.”

Flores agreed with Martin’s opinion that buyers are sometimes going beyond the metrics and use them on occasion to reject crops.

“It’s a loophole as far as I’m concerned, but I suppose we have to prove it and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Study examines link between wildlife and E. coli
Andrew Gordus, department of fish and game senior environmental scientist, plans to have hunters collect black-tail deer and wild pig colon samples as part of a study to determine if wildlife might be contaminating growers’ fields with E. coli.