Warnings Failed to Stop Spinach E. coli Outbreak
By Rick Moss
Distribution of E. coli-contaminated produce continues in the U.S. despite all the attention the problem has received in the last 10 years. And, according to a report in the
San Francisco Chronicle, the most recent outbreak, apparently stemming from Earthbound Farm’s Natural Selection label grown in California’s Salinas Valley and San Benito
County, came just 10 months after the FDA issued a letter to the area’s growers and packers calling on them to “consider modifying their operations accordingly to ensure that
they are taking the appropriate measures to provide a safe product to the consumer.”
Everyone involved in the effort, from the FDA, state health officials, the Western Grocers trade association and the producing companies seem frustrated by the challenge of identifying
the actual source of the contamination and making the proper changes to safeguard against repeated incidents. Although inspectors visited farms yesterday to take field samples,
the tests will be similar to many done since 1995 when the first cases of E. coli were reported. Although most agree that animal feces spread by surface water is the cause of
the problem, officials have not conclusively determined the source of outbreaks in the past.
Even if the sources are identified and acknowledged, the solutions will most likely not be obvious. Said Jenny Scott, a microbiologist and vice president of food safety programs
for the Food Products Association, “We’re still learning about what we can do to prevent contamination in the field. Animals poop in the field, we have cattle grazing in the nearby
field, we have water runoff. It can be very difficult to prevent these outbreaks unless we grow everything in a greenhouse, which isn’t practical.”
The most government agencies are typically able to do is trace the bacteria to a specific producer, but often, by the time that is done, the growing season is over, the field
conditions have changed and the product in question has already been distributed. And the efficiency of the U.S. distribution system creates the type of crises seen in this latest
spinach incident, as produce from a single field can be scattered throughout the country.
Discussion Questions: With all the attention it’s gotten over the last decade, why do regulatory and inspection agencies seem unable to cope with the
problem of E. coli contamination in the U.S.? Will this latest spinach crisis bring the attention necessary to force a refocus of their efforts?