Vegetables and other specialty crops of California coastal counties are at very low risk of deliberately introduced plant pathogens, says Steve Koike, Monterey County farm advisor.

Koike, whose specialty is plant pathology, told a recent agricultural terrorism awareness seminar in Salinas that unlike the massive acreages of soybeans or wheat in the Midwest, coastal crops are, for several reasons, relatively insignificant targets for agricultural terrorism acts.

He stressed at the gathering that his remarks were focused on the intentional introduction of plant pathogens and/or food-borne human pathogens, such as E. coli. He also said that the risks of any unintentional contamination of crops remain “a question mark.”

The seminar was held just days before the first reports of fresh spinach contaminated with E. coli, which have since claimed national media headlines and continuing, intensive investigation.

“We have a great diversity of ‘minor’ crops, mostly fresh market, that are important to us along the coast but not so great in the national scheme of things,” he said.

Furthermore, the region's prolonged growing season means that from roughly February to November, as many as three different, intensively-farmed, closely-observed crops can be grown on a given piece of land.

“The public needs to know,” he said, “the risk of intentionally introduced plant pathogens is extremely low.”

The plant pathogens that might be potentially brought in by terrorists affect only a few of the many crops. For example, a lettuce pathogen would not necessarily affect broccoli or celery and vice versa.

Nevertheless, Koike said the growers and others in the produce industry need to be vigilant for any eventuality, whether intentional or accidental.

He said the Salinas Valley has a very good model for dealing with such threats. “The first part is being aware of such risks, which we are. Second, we know how to detect for them. Then we have the facilities to identify the problem, and finally, we have close communication between the industry, universities, and local, state, and federal agencies.”

In detailing procedures in place in the Salinas Valley, Koike said awareness and monitoring are provided by the growers and PCAs of the region. “We have a very high level of expertise out in the fields, with professional people constantly monitoring the rapidly growing crops. That's to our advantage over a crop like cotton that takes months to mature.”

Rapid diagnosis of most problems is assured by the state-of-the-art laboratory facilities at the Monterey County Cooperative Extension office in Salinas. “Very few counties have a lab like ours, and we look at thousands of samples of fungal and bacterial pathogens and about 90 percent of the diagnostic work is done in-house.”

Koike said he is also closely linked with the western regional network of USDA's National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN) to address any exotic pest or pathogen problems that cannot be solved locally.

“We, in Monterey County, do continuous research in all the major, and many of the minor, plant pathogens that affect the valley,” Koike said. “We are also well aware of what's happening with these pathogens in the worldwide situation.”

To aid professionals in the field, the University of California is publishing a new book that will summarize all vegetable diseases occurring in the state, as well as some occurring in Europe and elsewhere. “To know when something is exotic, we first have to know about the familiar ones,” he said.

Finally, Koike said he and other local specialists are working with UC, Davis researchers on improving detection of E. coli and other pathogens on produce.

Another seminar speaker, Mary Ellen Taylor of the Food and Drug Administration, San Francisco, said her agency is allied with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USDA to prevent an attack on the nation's food supply. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are also involved.

“First, people need to be aware that intentional contamination is a very real possibility, and second, we need to be aware of strategies to protect the food supply,” said Taylor.

Attacks on the food supply can be directed at any point in the chain from field to table, she said, and four factors are important in vulnerability of a food product to attacks. They are large batches of the product, uniform mixing of the product, a short shelf-life that makes tracing the source difficult, and ease of access to a step in the food chain.

Most likely, a contaminating agent used by terrorists would be biological or chemical, although these are also risks for accidental contamination.

“We are working with industry to identify the commodities with the highest risk and which agents might be used and the places in the supply chain that are most attractive as a target,” she said.

Software for the effort is expected to be available by the end of 2006 so that the food industry can augment its existing confidential, “for official use only” security procedures.

Richard W. Hoenisch, regional training coordinator for the NPDN, at the UC, Davis, said although the network has no regulatory authority or function, is a means of rapid detection and diagnosis of unknown pests and pathogens of both animal and plant production.

It was authorized by the Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act of 2002 to deal with deliberately introduced, high consequence biologically threats.

Based at several Land Grant Universities across the United States, the national network has five regions. Each region is training a volunteer corps of growers, university specialists, PCAs, consultants, applicators, chemical and seed company representatives, master gardeners and others as “first detectors,” persons who are in the field daily.

Briefly, first detectors assist county or university specialists by monitoring for any new pest, disease, or weed and submitting samples for laboratory identification and further action as necessary.