How to minimize or prevent future outbreaks of E. coli 0157:H7 is the great question vexing the industry. The truth is we don’t know that much about E. coli. It is typically associated with ruminant animals, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) just announced that they found E. coli 0157:H7 of the same strain that was in the spinach bags and in the sick people in the digestive track of a wild pig, which is a monogastric animal, not a ruminant.
The pig was in a cow pasture adjacent to the implicated spinach field and they noted both holes in the fences around the spinach fields and tracks across the spinach field.
Although they have found the same strain of E.coli in a stream and in fecal material on the same ranch, right now they are focused on wild pigs as they both have the E. coli strain and a plausible method of contaminating the spinach field.
It is worth emphasizing that this is still just a theory, and they have found ZERO on the actual spinach field. In fact, here is a PR lesson for the industry. If you are going to use a portion of a ranch for fresh product and a portion for some other use, make sure you split up the land ownership into two separate companies. This way the government and the media would be unable to say that they have found something on the ranch where the spinach was grown.
In fact, the topography of this field seems to lay ruin to everyone’s various theories about the whole thing. There was a big article in The New York Times, which we linked to as part of one of our Pundit Mailbags. The Times article theorized that this whole problem was caused by cattle being grain fed. However, the cattle where we are finding the E. coli 0157:H7 next to the implicated spinach field was pasture-raised cattle.
The same Pundit Mailbag dealt with water leaking down on a field, which is another favorite theory but, in the actual implicated field, the spinach was on a kind of plateau over pasture, riparian land and a stream. In other words, nothing could drain down onto the spinach.
At this point we know that the testing that CDHS and FDA have done has resulted in nine isolates of E. coli 0157:H7 of the subject strain on one of the four implicated ranches. Though they have found E. coli 0157:H7 on other implicated ranches, it has not matched the strain found in the outbreak.
But how the E. coli got to the spinach fields, how it got on the spinach, why it wasn’t washed off in the processing — these are really unknowns. Is it is possible for spinach to absorb it through the roots? We don’t know. Is it possible that it adheres to the surface in such a way that it simply cannot be washed off? We don’t know.
It is a very good thing that PMA has appropriated $1 million for a food safety initiative, because we need to jump start some research on these questions. Hopefully we can use the PMA money, as well as more that Western Growers Association will raise in a public/private partnership with money from the state of California and the federal government, to really improve the science here.
Improved science possibly will lead to better processing solutions so that any pathogen can be removed with greater certainty.
In the meantime, however, we are looking for practical ways to minimize contamination of foods designed to be consumed raw. It is not an easy thing to do because, as we discussed in our review of the Spinach Town Hall Meeting, things can always be made safer and the regulatory agencies give precious little guidance as to what kind of tradeoff is acceptable between keeping food economical for consumers.
Still the dilemma is that the industry does not have the luxury of waiting for either perfect knowledge or perfect guidance from regulators. Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, along with Sunkist and Sun Sweet, sponsored famous San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Steve Young to speak at a breakfast on Tuesday morning of the PMA convention. He provided an example of how his football career could guide business decisions.
Steve Young explained that being relatively small, compared to the massive guys that surrounded him, he often couldn’t see where his receiver actually was. So he had to develop the instinct of being able to throw the ball blind to the spot where the receiver was going to be.
In light of the limits of our knowledge of E. coli and the urgent need to act, so we too must develop the instinct of projecting where the science and the regulators are going to wind up and take action to bring the industry to that position now.