Don’t eat poop: human feces on mushroom farm edition

Last week I received a call from Jonathan Austin of the Yancy County (NC) News about a farmer discovering poop on their farm. Not all that surprising as managing poop is something that farmers have to deal with a lot. The good producers reduce risks by doing their best to keep animals out of their system.

Feral pigs dragging around and dropping poop was cited by investigators as a major factor in Dole/Earthbound Farms 2006 E. coli O157 outbreak that sickened 200 and led to at least 3 deaths. Earlier this year, deer (roaming around and pooping) in strawberry fields were the likely cause of 16 illnesses and one death in Oregon.
And sheep conducting low-cost weed control and fertilizer duties may be a factor in the recent cantaloupe-linked Listeria outbreak originating from Jensen Farms in Colorado.

Jonathan wanted to talk about human poop on a farm. According to the farmer, seven piles of human poop (covered with paper that had been used to wipe) had been found near a mushroom production area. A crew hired by a power company to clear a right-of-way had apparently left the gifts close to the mushrooms as they cleared brush. Sorta gross.

There have been human poop-linked outbreaks linked to produce farms in the past. Dirty diapers and a lack of washroom or PortaJohn facilities were cited by FDA officials as factors in a 2003 Hepatitis A outbreak linked to Mexican-grown green onions. A 2001 Shigella outbreak in British Columbia (that’s in Canada) was pinned on a leaky septic tank near a spinach field.

A member of the property owner’s family immediately took photographs of the feces when it was discovered to document how close it was to the mushroom area.
"It’s very frustrating," said the farmer. This newspaper is choosing to not identify the farmer after consultation with county and state agriculture officials.

"The least they could do is bury it," the farmer said.

In an economic climate where North Carolina farmers are still trying to rebound from the loss of the lucrative tobacco crop, the exposure of crop land to human feces is troubling, officials said, and they said it could be a threat to the health of the community.

Dr. Ben Chapman, a professor in food safety at N.C. State University, said agriculture agencies and farmers work "to eliminate as much human feces" from the food chain as possible. "It definitely increases the risk of food-borne illness" such as salmonella, E. Coli and other dangerous pathogens or bacteria, he specifically said.
"That’s how people get sick, through this fecal-oral route," Chapman said. "If I were that business owner and they were (doing this to me), I’d be concerned not just from a public health issue, but also because that’s my business."

Jeff Lovin, the general manager of French Broad Electric Membership Corp., the local utility, said he hadn’t heard of the possible problems and deferred to his sub-contractor who is hired to clear the right of way. That sub-contractor did not return a message left on his voicemail.

But Lovin did question how humans defecating on a farm differs from "the bear, the deer, the dogs and cats" and other animals that might do so. "How do we know it’s those guys" hired to clean the power line?

Asked if the utility requires sub-contractors to provide bathroom facilities, he replied: "We don’t bring PortaJohns" out for the work.

Addressing animal and human poop is a bit different – it’s difficult to communicate effectively with animals;  risk is reduced by putting up fences and managing animal movement. With people, it should be simpler because an individual can be told not to poop near someone else’s food; and the consequences of doing so can be shared.

Chapman, the N.C. State expert, said he felt such an attitude is not one that takes into account all the issues that arise when human waste is left where food is grown for market. "There are risks that are beyond their control. My sense on it it, you want do do that (deposit human waste) as far away as possible" from agriculture area.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.