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.