Warnings Failed to Stop Spinach E. coli Outbreak

Discussion
Sep 19, 2006

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?


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11 Comments on "Warnings Failed to Stop Spinach E. coli Outbreak"


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Ryan Mathews
Guest
15 years 8 months ago

The answer is because of the way it is spread. Animal feces is one answer, human is another. For example, water-born E. coli contamination is an ongoing problem at certain public beaches. The “perfect solution” would be to bar people from swimming at beaches with consistent E. coli incidents, but that causes public outrage about being denied access to recreational facilities. If you could 100 percent guarantee water quality; human and animal behavior; and have the best systems of plant sanitation and inspection…then maybe you could eliminate the E. coli threat. But we don’t. We also don’t seem to have a very responsive recall system. The real question is, “Why, when the E. coli was out of the barn did we allow it to run so free?” I’m hard pressed to understand why any retailer and/or foodservice operator continued to sell/offer spinach when the source of the contamination wasn’t clear. Playing Spinach Roulette with public health isn’t good for business in the long run or consumer well being or trust in the short.

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 8 months ago

I agree that preventing this kind of contamination will be difficult, and efforts should be made for faster isolation and more effective response. Better tracking throughout the supply chain is critical. While this outbreak was not the result of deliberate action, the same precautions are absolutely necessary as part of safeguarding our food supply. We may never be able to prevent a deliberate contamination, but we must work to have a swift and effective response to limit the damage.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
15 years 8 months ago

As we are seeing, determining the causes of the latest E. coli outbreak is a time consuming effort involving federal and state governments as well as industry and academia. Preventing the spread of E. coli in the future is also a joint responsibility of government and the produce industry.

Food retailers are best served by communicating to their customers (and store associates) the latest FDA recommendations on spinach and the safe handling of all fruits and vegetables, and then updating these recommendations as we learn more from this on-going investigation.

There will be numerous lessons to be learned here and additional precautions and safety measures to be taken.

Consumers will always follow the rule, “When in doubt, throw it out.” But perhaps they will be most confused by FDA’s recommendation not to eat any fresh spinach, both organic and non-organic.

More to come…

Kai Clarke
Guest
15 years 8 months ago

The key to success here is a multiple step cleansing system with safeguards in-place that would protect the public, while maximizing the ability of the government to record, report and protect the public. This is clearly not being done, and the system is unable to properly alert or reflect a due-diligence process to keep the public safe.

John Lansdale
Guest
John Lansdale
15 years 8 months ago

My “don’t know” is strong. There may be some truth, but not enough to justify the story size. It’s someone’s PR. Who knows what for; to sell some (new) processing/saftey product (to the spinach or other similar industry), boost sales of some competing product, PR service, etc. Whether the industry does anything depends on how much negative money is being spent.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
15 years 8 months ago

I certainly hope Gene was kidding…perhaps he was trying to parody the usual cadre of alarmists.

Anyway, life is full of risks, this is a pretty small one; if one is that worried, they should boil everything (in distilled water and w/a solar oven, of course.)

Herbert Seigler
Guest
Herbert Seigler
15 years 8 months ago

It appears that since the bacteria is so geographically spread in the latest spinach issue, the culprit is not an isolated incident of a bird flying over or unwashed worker hands. Therefore, is not the culprit more likely irrigation water, which is something that can be tested as it is used to spot potential problems and at least limit them to a field?

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 8 months ago

Frequently federal food inspection seems to be defined by the spinach E. coli scenario: after people get sick, the USDA tries to find the source. Prevention using random inspections on a frequent basis isn’t in the budget. You get what you pay for. Sooner or later, food producers will realize that it’s better to be frequently inspected (and pay the increased overhead) than be damaged by recalls and months and years of bad reputations that follow. Spinach consumption will be damaged for years by the E. coli outbreak. The identity of the actual producer doesn’t matter. The entire industry, all the producers, everything with spinach as an ingredient, will suffer sales resistance. Even a small percentage of consumer reluctance hurts prices and margins terribly.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
15 years 8 months ago

This will set back eating spinach for a long time. I may never eat it again unless a modern-day Popeye can re-popularize it.

Hitchhiking on Ryan’s comments, to wit, because of many factors E. coli is nearly uncontrollable, then perhaps a massive medical and governmental focus should be put on quick cure treatments for E. coli since always seems to rise up somewhere.

James Tenser
Guest
15 years 8 months ago

As long as birds fly free over open fields, sterile food production is a standard that can’t be guaranteed. After taking reasonable precautions for cleanliness, the next best controls might be field-by-field tracking of produce origins and periodic random sample testing. The latter would provide early detection of risk; the former would allow a means toward targeted, effective recalls.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
15 years 8 months ago

If the rest of the world had the RFID technology of Wal-Mart, might this tragedy been better contained? Our supply system is missing real trackabity. Should other contaminants or sabotage of our food supply occur, will we be able to locate tainted product in time to avoid carnage? The first line of defense would seem to be inspection at the production/packing facility. I know the meat and seafood industries have federal inspection via FDA and USDC. Do we have any formal inspection in our produce industry? Does it need to be improved? I certainly think so!

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