Let us hope the news that the public health laboratory in New Mexico has isolated E. coli 0157:H7 from a partially used bag of spinach in the refrigerator of a patient who, it is believed, got sick from eating contaminated spinach will give the Food and Drug Administration the opportunity it has been looking for to declare victory and go home.
Like an ongoing melodrama, the FDA has announced that it first narrowed the source of the outbreak to California, now to three counties in California. Dr. David Acheson, Chief Medical Officer of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, puts it this way:
“We started it out nationwide, (Tuesday), we got it down to California. (Wednesday), we got it down to three counties. (today), maybe we’ll narrow it down further. Ultimately, the goal is to get it down to a field, if not to a spinach leaf.”
I’m all in favor of identifying the cause of this outbreak. Doing so might help us determine some specific weakness on some specific farm. So if we find that one farm is somehow near livestock and that livestock defecated in such a way that E. coli ran into the spinach field, we can stop growing spinach there or move the livestock, or we can re-grade the land to prevent run-off or take some other action.
But we already know the issue of water flow and food safety. So we really don’t have to identify the source of this specific outbreak to work on issues such as these.
The FDA defends this total ban on spinach as a necessary public health measure, but I think they are doing long-term damage to public health. Why?
In the end, safety in the produce industry depends on actions by thousands of individual parties — farmers, processors, packers, etc. These actions all cost money. Growers have to grow more carefully, packers and processors have to decline the lowest bidder and pay more for product from “safe” operators. A lot of money is involved.
The business case for making these investments is to avoid the enormous costs associated with a crisis such as this one. If the FDA, however, punishes both the innocent and the guilty equally, then the incentive to pay the price to maintain a top quality operation is substantially reduced.
It is also an encouragement to terrorists as it tells them that with a relatively small effort they can bring a whole industry to a halt.
With so much having been written in so short a time, thought it would be helpful to publish a sort of round-up of available material to help people understand the whole situation regarding spinach and this E. coli breakout:
The Perishable Pundit itself has dealt extensively with the subject in several major pieces. On September 15, 2006, we published Spinach Recall Reveals Serious Industry Problems, which addressed the implications of this crisis for the fresh-cut industry. You can read the piece here.
On September 18, 2006, we published Organic Dodges a Bullet, which deals with the implications of the outbreak for the future of organic farming. You can find this piece here. Also on September 18, 2006, we ran a piece called Ramifications and Reflections On the Spinach Recall, which provided our first 10-point analysis of the situation. You can read it here.
September 19, 2006, we asked Is FDA’s Concern Now an Obsession? — a piece in which we assessed whether a national recommendation to not eat spinach made any sense. You can review this here.
On September 20, 2006, we noted 10 Peculiarities about the E. coli Outbreak and reviewed why certain aspects of the situation are unlike past food-safety challenges and other unanswered questions regarding the outbreak. Read this one right here. Also on September 20, 2006, we did our third 10-point list, calling this one “Spinach Recall Begs for Solutions” — reviewing how the trade can deal with this issue for the future, including looking at the meat industry, the prospect of universal testing and the use of RFID and GTIN. You can read all this here.
In addition, the Pundit did several smaller pieces that touched on various aspects of this crisis. On September 18, 2006, we raised the issue of whether food safety outbreaks such as this raise long-term issues about the viability of cartoon character tie-ins in Who Has Marketing Fortitude? You can read about it here. Also on September 18, 2006, we dealt with the way some companies have little sense of decency when it comes to marketing their products in the midst of a crisis. You can read this one right here.
Additionally on September 18, 2006, our Pundit’s Mailbag focused on letters received by United CEO Tom Stenzel and incoming Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos of Del Monte Fresh, which dealt with the confluence of United’s Board Meeting and the spinach crisis as well as issues of industry leadership. You can find this one here.
On September 19, 2006, we noted that there might be a Greenhouse Opportunity in all this. Read this here. Also on September 19, 2006, we noted that, though fruits and vegetables are healthy, fresh produce is not necessarily the best choice for those with a compromised immune system. The piece is called Marketing Nightmare and you can find it right here.
In addition to our own work, there are many excellent sources of information out there that do not require payment, membership or registration. Three of the Pundit’s favorites:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has offered daily information on the crisis right here.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with the outbreak here.
The Produce Marketing Association has maintained an excellent industry resource on the subject right here.
Please feel free to write or call if you are looking for specific information not included here. Note that many of the articles and websites have links to other resources.
The goal to eliminate all foodborne illness is laudable but probably unobtainable. The FDA is reporting over 140 cases of illness tied to the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in spinach. That sounds like a lot of sick people, but the Indiana State Department of Public Health reports that:
“…the source of the recent salmonella outbreak is the Wal-Mart on 1133 North Emerson in Greenwood. The deli and bakery departments have been identified as the source of the recent salmonella outbreak in northern Johnson and southern Marion counties….The State Department of Health was contacted on July 11 by the Marion County Health Department about an increase in salmonella cases in that area. Currently, 84 cases of salmonella have been reported to be part of the outbreak, which began in May 2006.”
To put it another way, one store in one part of Indiana gave Salmonella to more than half the number of people affected by the E. Coli outbreak.
And what is Salmonella and how do you spread it?
Salmonella is a bacterium found in the intestines of many animals. People often become infected by eating contaminated foods. Salmonella can be passed because people don’t wash their hands or fruits and vegetables properly. People can also become infected after handling chicks, ducklings or reptiles, such as lizards, snakes, and turtles. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, cramps, nausea and gas.
“The best way to avoid spreading salmonella is to wash hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets, and before they fix or eat food,” said Lynae Granzow, enteric epidemiologist, Indiana State Department of Health, in the press release. “People should also thoroughly cook all foods from animal sources, especially chicken, beef, pork, and eggs.”
The specific cause in this case:
“We believe food handlers who didn’t have any symptoms may have contaminated the deli and bakery products.”
One lesson is that anyone who handles perishable foods needs to be concerned about foodborne illness. The other lesson is that there is vulnerability at every step in the supply chain. A disturbing question is if we can’t stop people from spreading disease in our stores, how are we going to stop wild animals and livestock from spreading disease in our fields?
In a piece we ran on September 13, we analyzed a request made in the UK by the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative to the Food Standards Agency asking that organic milk be recognized as more nutritious than conventional milk. The Pundit was skeptical and… apparently, correct. The Food Standards Agency has concluded its review, including the new study submitted:
The FSA has concluded that whilst this study shows that organically produced milk can contain higher levels of types of fats called short-chain omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced milk, the evidence suggests that these fatty acids appear to be of limited health benefit compared to the longer chain omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish.2,3
Short-chain fatty acids can be converted to these long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to be protective against cardiovascular disease. However the conversion rate of the short-chain fatty acids to the longer chain fatty acids appears to be very limited.4,5
Therefore, organic milk consumed in volumes consistent with a healthy diet would not provide sufficient amounts of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids to provide significant health benefits, over and above those associated with conventional milk.