Another food safety outbreak is not shocking to anyone who knows the facts. When many in the produce industry were busy celebrating that the much vaunted Dateline NBC piece hadn’t caused a collapse in sales, I warned in an exchange with Bryan Silbermann of the Produce Marketing Association that this wasn’t over and we had merely dodged a bullet.
Now, in a true nightmare scenario for the industry, bagged spinach is believed to be the cause of an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 that is known to have caused one death, 8 cases of kidney failure and illnesses in 50 people. As a result, the FDA issued a statement which you can read here. This is the key recommendation:
Based on the current information, FDA advises that consumers not eat bagged fresh spinach at this time. Individuals who believe they may have experienced symptoms of illness after consuming bagged spinach are urged to contact their health care provider.
Any food safety outbreak is a problem for the industry but this is a real disaster because, so far at least, they have been unable to identify a single brand or processor. This meant the FDA felt compelled to urge people to not consume the product at all. I cannot remember this ever happening with regard to a food safety issue.
Unfortunately this is not the first time we have had issues with bagged spinach. Just this summer we had a voluntary recall of spinach and spring mix because of possible Salmonella contamination.
The whole issue, and the FDA’s response to it, is colored by the inability to really pin down the cause of last year’s E. coli contamination in Minnesota, related to Dole packaged salads. The Los Angeles Times did a recent follow-up on the story here.
Alan Siger of Consumers Produce Co. of Pittsburgh is one of the most consistently insightful people in the industry. He wrote the Pundit with what is perhaps the key insight into the seriousness of the situation:
It’s really the first time that I can remember (other than the cyanide grape fiasco) that the FDA came out and told consumers not to eat any of a specific product. The outbreak was in August through the 3rd of September, so the problem product is probably already out of the food supply.
They haven’t yet named a processor but judging by the broad geographic distribution of the illness reports, it was probably a major national processor rather than a regional one.
In spite of the Industry’s efforts to do everything possible to prevent them, there still are several outbreaks a year traced back to fresh-cut produce. My personal opinion is that even though the risk of getting sick from eating fresh-cut product is incredibly small, it is however greater than eating the same product purchased in its whole form.
Whether it is cross contamination in the packing line or just simply the cutting open of the insides of the product allowing contaminants to be absorbed, there is a greater risk of problems with fresh-cut product.
The industry has spent billions on capital investment on the fresh-cut industry. The FDA is losing patience as noted by their letter to the lettuce industry last winter warning them to get the industry’s house in order. I wonder what the consequence will be if the FDA decides that they reach the same conclusions that I have
The letter Alan refers to from the FDA can be read here. It highlighted several areas that the industry needed to work on, and fast. Most specifically targeted is the idea that crops grown in areas where there was flooding from agricultural water sources should be excluded from the human food supply.
The key point that Alan focuses in on is this: If a bird dropping causes E. coli on a head of spinach, one person or one family is vulnerable. The nature of fresh-cut processing seems to be such that the danger can be spread to multiple packages.
But it goes beyond that. The pre-washed nature of bagged salads and, especially, bagged spinach, has caused a cultural shift. People understood the need to thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables. This kind of product is specifically sold as pre-washed.
And it has even changed diets. Spinach was mostly served as a cooked dish, and the cooking would get rid of the E. coli.
Fresh spinach was a time-consuming item. I remember my mother had this big centrifuge-like thing and my job was to pull a cord, as on a lawn mower, to dry it.
If you tell people they have to wash baby spinach leaves and then dry them before they make a salad, you are significantly reducing the convenience appeal of that product.
So there is not going to be any easy answer such as telling consumers to wash the product. Instead, the only answer is that processing facilities have to assume that E. coli contamination is present and the processing has to be developed so that even if it is present on the crop, it can’t wind up in the bag. That seems to be a tall order.
But if we don’t find a way, then Al Siger’s question will haunt the industry:
“…even though the risk of getting sick from eating fresh-cut product is incredibly small, it is however greater than eating the same product purchased in its whole form… I wonder what the consequence will be if the FDA decides that they reach the same conclusions that I have.”