Politics of the Plate: Oh, Deer

In the name of food safety, California farmers have been waging a needless war against native wildlife.
oh deer

In the aftermath of the infamous 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach that sickened hundreds of North American consumers and killed three, an old-fashioned range war broke out in California’s Salinas Valley, which bills itself as the nation’s salad bowl.

Produce growers there launched a scorched-earth campaign against all forms of wildlife, everything from deer and wild pigs down to mice and frogs. According to Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall, workers on one farm alone killed 33 deer in a single year. Ponds were poisoned to destroy reptiles (and anything else that happened to be living there). Bait stations were set up on the periphery of fields to poison small rodents. Hedgerows and trees that provided habitat and absorbed polluted runoff were bulldozed. And miles of eight-foot-tall fencing were erected to prevent deer from entering fields—and migrating to watering holes in the dry valley. In the name of food safety, the hard-won benefits of two decades of environmental progress were eliminated within a few short months.

Needlessly, it now appears.

Last week, a consortium of government and university researchers released results of a two-year-long study that examined 866 wild animals from the Central Coast area for E. coli contamination. Only four—less than 0.5 percent—tested positive: one pig, one coyote, and two elk. No traces of E. coli were found in the 311 deer sampled, nor in any rabbits, mice, ground squirrels, rabbits, birds, and other species listed as “animals of concern” under food safety guidelines implemented after the 2006 outbreak.

“The small number of positive animals suggests the risk for produce contamination by wildlife is probably low,” said Robert Mandrell of the Produce Microbiology and Safety Research Unit at U. C. Davis, in a press release.

Andy Gordus, a scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game who participated in the study, offered a somewhat less politic assessment of the wildlife-eradication efforts in an interview with me last summer: “The science isn’t there to prove deer are a factor,” he said. “But farmers are being required to moonscape the habitat around their fields in the name of food safety,” he says. “That’s amputating a person’s leg because they have a hangnail.”

Subscribe to Gourmet